“Are we nearly there yet?” pipes up my nine-year-old daughter Angeline. Whisked back into the realm of motherhood, I assure her that the animal park isn’t far away. Luckily, while New Zealand’s South Island is as awe-inspiring as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, it’s also peppered with adventures both little folk and grownups can enjoy.
At Hanmer Springs, in anticipation of meeting llamas and other animals, Angeline has bounded out of the car. Following her lead, my husband and I soon find ourselves patting the fuzzy heads of alpacas in the two-acre park that’s just 90 minutes out of Christchurch. And it’s not long before we’re equally besotted with the red deer, donkeys, angora goats, emus and Tibetan yaks. Mobbed by three Bambi look-a-likes, Angeline squeals in unbridled delight.
As the sun sinks we end our day in the alpine village warming up at the local hot springs. Angeline wades into a steaming rockpool, floats down a man-made stream, then spotting the waterslide, prances off in glee towards the shrieks of other children. I float a few rounds with her on the Lazy River, before going in search of my husband, last left stewing in a briny-smelling 40°C sulphur pool – one of 15 open-air thermal pools within the complex.
Our journey continues on… across the Lewis Pass and down the West Coast, the longest part of the South Island. Bound by the Tasman Sea, and a wilderness of moraine, mountains, rivers and forest, the route is strewn with short walks that break up the trip. Entering the signposted tracks we venture into the emerald, mossed kingdoms of endangered birds, enjoying walks as varied as Lake Matheson, Blue Pools, and Fox Glacier. Here, ancient glaciers, waterfalls and tinkling streams, secret lakes and pools, and red and blue mushrooms are some of the treasures to be discovered.
Reaching the Queenstown Lakes District, we stop at Wanaka for fish and chips by the lakefront, before we decide to hire some bicycles and go for a ride. Nestled beneath mountains, the town is rich with scenic cycling and walking tracks. Alongside Lake Wanaka’s dreamy waters, we cycle as far as Angeline is comfortable. Wanaka is also home to Puzzling World, Cinema Paradiso’s old world charm and nature cruises. Cocooned for the night in the circular, fire-lit chamber of our own personal yurt, we sleep as soundly as Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
The following day we’re cloistered in a steaming barrel at the Onsen Hot Pools in Queenstown, enjoying ice-cream and drinks over a fairytale view rivalling anything on Disney. Later, in town, we browse Queenstown’s hippest eateries, then file into the pumped-up, Antarctic vibe of Minus-5 Ice Bar – named after the temperature inside. Sipping a mocktail at the glistening ice bar, Angeline revels in the ice glass, ice seats and sculptures.
Beyond Queenstown, the Milford Highway carves through dense forest where monstrous mountains tumble with water. It’s unsurprising a thought-to-be extinct bird, the flightless takahe, was discovered here. Once at the Sound (technically an ice-carved fjord) where the Milford Highway ends, we leave our car behind and continue our journey onboard a nature cruise. The Milford Mariner chugs within soaking distance of a waterfall, then towards a sighting of seals on the rocks. Angeline’s heart was stolen by the cheeky keas of the area.
From here we drive on to Dunedin, which is six hours east of Milford Sound and considered the wildlife capital of the South Island. Dunedin’s Otago Peninsula and harbour are a dedicated nature reserve for 10,000 seabirds, penguins, fur seals, sea lions, Southern Right Whales and more.
From an observatory building, we peer excitedly through binoculars at the giant, fluffy three-month-old chicks of the world’s only mainland colony of Northern Royal Albatross. The third largest seabird in the world, they’ll grow to have a wingspan of over three metres. As night fell, scores of Little Blue Penguins crest the sea and waddle up Pilot Beach. It’s an experience Angeline ranks as her favourite in New Zealand.
The three to four hour drive from Dunedin through the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park transports us through serene cloud-hung mountains and magical lakes. I felt as if I’m in the dominion of a fairytale kingdom. After meeting a local guide, we cycled alongside the pearl-blue of Lake Pukaki. It’s a small and tantalising sample of the Alps 2 Ocean Trail. Normally undertaken over four to six days across 300 eye-catching kilometres of lake and mountain terrain, the trail is justifiably rated as one of the best places to visit in the world.
After revelling in the frosted peaks along the walks of the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, Angeline is eager for a closer glimpse of the ice. On a Glacier Explorers tour, a boat carries us across Tasman Glacier’s terminal lake for a look at the countries largest glacier. Peered over by frosted mountains and strewn with glittering shards of ice, it’s an otherworldly landscape reminiscent of the Snow Queen’s domain. When boatsman, Dougie, plucks an iceberg out of the water, Angeline is thrilled to hold it.
We finish our trip at the Lake Tekapo lies, which lies within the 4,300 square kilometre Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the only such reserve in the Southern Hemisphere. Construction is banned, light pollution avoided and it means you can see nature at its best. There’s that special feeling that the stars are smiling down on us.