How to make the most of NZ’s Southern Scenic Route

Lake Wakatipu
Lake Wakatipu

A summer holiday on New Zealand’s Southern Scenic Route means stunning mountain scenery, rugged coastlines, great food, wildlife encounters and plenty of chances to get the adrenaline going. Pack a jumper (and a beanie and gloves) just in case summer turns out to be on the wintry side and enjoy!

We spent just over a week between Queenstown and Dunedin. Here are the highlights. 

Queenstown – 3 nights

Queenstown is the gateway to New Zealand’s ski fields. It’s also the adrenaline capital, and that means teenage heaven.

We kick things off with an afternoon of luging at the top of the Queenstown gondola. It’s a lot of fun, but even if you don’t see the point of hurtling down a concrete path on a sled, the view over Lake Wakatipu and across to the Remarkables is worth the visit.

Mountain biking is another big hit with my sons. Bikes and gear can be rented in town. The trails also run from the top of the gondola and are steep – very steep. Not for novices.

Rafting on the Shotover
Rafting on the Shotover

Probably the highlight of our visit is whitewater rafting on the Shotover. The thrills start with the van ride to the river – a hair-raising descent along a mountain-goat track into Skipper’s Canyon. Once at the bottom of the canyon we are assigned rafts and guides and equipped with paddles. For the next hour or so I have my heart in my mouth as we are propelled down the rapids, dodging rocks. I try hard to follow the paddling instructions from our guide, but all I want to do is curl up in the bottom of the boat and stay out of the way. I swear my heart stops for a second on the final rapid when I turn around to find my son has fallen out of the raft. He bobs to the surface moments later and is fine, but I take a bit longer to recover. This is not for the faint hearted!

There are plenty of options for dining in Queenstown. The lakefront is prime position on a warm evening and the food here all seems pretty good. We also love Bella Cucina for great pizzas and Italian fare. Fergburger is massively popular with backpackers and teens, but the queues are a bit of a killer. The bakery next door – is a better option for a quick bite – great pies and baguettes.

Our accommodation is at Peppers. The apartments are well set up with great views over the lake and are walking distance from the town centre.

Te Anau – 3 nights 

It’s a spectacular drive along Lake Wakatipu and through lush farmland to the town of Te Anau. This is the entry point to the Fiordland – Milford Sound and Dusky Sound. But we’re here for the trout fishing.

I’m not a fishing person at all, but I can recommend a day on the Waiau with a guide and a jet boat. (We used Fishjet). Our helpful guide is always on hand to change lures, untangle lines and unsnag hooks. He also offers expert commentary on the area and is a dab hand at the BBQ. He prepares a gorgeous lunch of crayfish and venison on a sandbank in the middle of the river. The trout, as it turns out, are a lot smarter than they look. We can see them, we even catch a few, but landing them proves very tricky. There’s extreme excitement when I finally land a mini monster. There are a few quick pics before he goes back into the river and we drag ourselves home.

Fishing on the Waiau River with Fishjet
Fishing on the Waiau River with Fishjet

We stay just out of town at the Blue Mountains Cottages. It’s a stunning setting and we’re impressed by our supply of home-made shortbread and fresh eggs. Our hosts make us feel very welcome as do the dogs! We take a late afternoon walk along a nearby section of the Keppler Track. Part of Lord of the Rings was filmed here. If hobbits were real, they would live here!

We also hire golf clubs and play a very average game of golf on a stunning course. The views are much better the standard of play.

Portobello (Otago Peninsula) – 2 nights 

It’s a two hour trip through farmland from Te Anau to Invercargill. Then we take a very, very long drive along the Southern Scenic Route to Dunedin. The route roughly follows the coastline, but to see the sites, diversions are necessary. We stop off at Waipapa Point – the site of New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster. Here we almost trip over a sea lion lounging in the sand dunes, and get chased by another one. Beware! We make several other stops where we are almost blown off the cliffs by the howling southerly.

It’s early evening by the time we arrive on the Otago Peninsula. This is the home of seal colonies, more sea lions, an albatross colony and several types of penguins. The harbor side of the Peninsula faces Dunedin (not the world’s loveliest city) but the seaside of the Peninsula is wild and spectacular.

Sandfly Beach, Otago
Sandfly Beach, Otago

The albatross centre at the end of the Peninsula is worth a visit – even just to take in the view and see the wheeling gulls. We only spot two albatross when we are there. Sadly bird numbers are being hit by long line fishing.

Eating options on the Peninsula are limited, but the Portobello Hotel serves good meals. Our accommodation is not far away in a very comfortable house, that overlooks the harbour. That was rented that through Porterfields Lodge.

For my sons, the highlight of the holiday is Queenstown. They love the adventure activities. My hubbie is also a big fan of the place. But for me, it’s the wild side of the Otago Peninsula – trekking down to Sandfly Beach, where we find a seal colony, a lazy sea lion, a lonely yellow-eyed penguin and two brave surfers. If you love wildlife – you’ll love it too.

Also see – Welcome to the mothers-of-boys tribe

Published by Julie Fison

Julie Fison is a Brisbane writer and travel lover. Her debut novel for adults ONE PUNCH is a compelling and thought-provoking family drama that follows two mothers forced to make impossible decisions after one life-changing night. Inspired by real events, the story is a sharp study of the complexities of family life and the consequences of being blind to the faults of our loved ones. Julie’s other work includes books for children and young adults – the Hazard River adventure series for young adventure lovers, stories in the Choose Your Own Ever After series that let the reader decide how the story goes, and a play for secondary school students As the Crow Flies. Julie is also a committed traveller and loves sharing tips for midlife adventurers.

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