Cloven in half by narrow Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand has something of a split personality. Though the South Island is larger by far than the North Island, it only has one-fourth of North’s population—which gives it a lot more room for natural beauty and invigorating sports adventures. On successive days you can surf off a golden-sand beach, sail up a misty fiord, and ski down the face of a glacier; and you can backpack through green misty wilderness for days, then sip sauvignon blanc at posh wineries.
Most visitors fly into Christchurch, known for its formal gardens and graceful Victorian architecture. If you’re an oenophile, however, take the ferry from Wellington right into the quaint waterfront village of Picton, a handy jumping-off point for the Marlborough wine region, where more than a hundred wineries produce easily half of New Zealand’s wine output, and the top-end half at that. Contact Marlborough Wine Tours to arrange a tour. North of wine country, one of the jewels in the national park system, Abel Tasman National Park, hugs a dramatic stretch of balmy coast, a great place for sea kayaking and hiking. Abel Tasman Wilson’s Experiences can arrange journeys there.
Fly into Queenstown, in the island’s midsection, if you have a yen for adrenaline sports—bungee jumping, hang gliding, sky diving, rock climbing, hot-air ballooning, white-water rafting, the whole shebang. Skiers flock here from around the world in winter, that is, June through September, when the northern hemisphere’s snows have disappeared. Unfortunately, the word is out about Milford Sound, that stunning narrow 22km-long (14-mile) fiord off the Tasman Sea that’s now jampacked with daylong bus tours from Queenstown. Base yourself instead in the charming lakeside resort of Te Anau, where your drive to Milford Sound is a dramatic 2-hour adventure through the primeval landscape that director Peter Jackson captured in Lord of the Rings—vertiginous waterfalls, pristine lakes, virgin forest, and steep peaks surrounding deep-gouged fiords. Vast Fiordlands National Park has several breathtaking long-distance hiking trails: the Milford, the Hollyford, the Kepler, and the Routeburn tracks. The classic 53km (33-mile) Milford Track walk takes 4 days, but Trips ’n’ Tramps offers guided 1-day samples.
The entire west coast, in fact, seems like one huge parkland. North of the Fiordlands, the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers in Westland National Park, State Hwy. 6, plunge spectacularly to the sea, and make this a superb place for guided walks and heli-hikes. Inland, New Zealand’s highest mountain, snowcapped Mount Cook, is a magnet for skiers and mountaineers (Sir Edmund Hillary trained here before climbing Mount Everest). Try a half-day hike on the Hooker Valley trail in Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park You’ll cross two swinging bridges over gorges, pass two pristine lakes and alpine meadows full of wildflowers, cross a board-walk over boggy tussocks, and wind up right at the frosty face of a glacier. That’s South Island in a nutshell for you.