Driving from Christchurch to Queenstown – Heart of NZ South Island

GUEST ARTICLE:Kiwi guest writer Greg Royal tells the tale of his driving holiday between Christchurch and Queenstown, the most popular cities frequented by visitors to New Zealand’s South Island.

Christchurch Cathedral

The most British of all New Zealand cities, the heart of Christchurch is Cathedral Square, the center of tourist activity and a must see for all visitors.


Hagley Park is an enormous open space just off the center of the city. It provides a central repository for joggers, picnickers, walkers and those looking for some solitude. The Avon River meanders through the park offering punters the ability to act out scenes from a Jane Austen novel.

We arrived late the previous evening, so we settled into the Quality Hotel on the aforementioned park across the road from the renowned Botanic Gardens. As the morning broke, we set out to look for coffee and to visit the city center before the crowds arrive. Christchurch is a major destination for the Japanese tourist buses and they disembark like Narita Airport at noon. When you arrive at Cathedral Square you get the idea that it caters for foreigners by the swath of Duty Free stores selling everything from stuffed Kiwi toys to Burberry, Chanel and Louis Vuitton.

We arrived New Years eve to the sounds and sights of council workers busy setting up for the evenings festivities. To the southern end of the square rose a concert stage circled by a wagon trail of mobile food trailers: fish and chips, hot dogs, popcorn you name it.

A permanent fixture in the square is Escarto Espresso Coffee. We quickly ordered soy latte and a flat white (For those who don’t know a flat white refers to a drink drawn over a single shot. The milk is taken from the bottom of the jug which has a smaller denser bubble designed to draw out the flavor of the coffee. It is unique to down under) and settled into people watching under an old pohutakawa tree.

Escarto Espresso Coffee

Still early in the morning, we had a mix of locals taking in their regular as well as a mix of tourists, mostly Western European.

Across from Escarto was the information center, which oddly enough housed a local Starbucks (which I call coffee you have when you are not having a coffee). New Zealand has a tourist information network called iSites and this one is called the Christchurch Isite. These information centers provide detailed information and concierge services for anyone who asks. They should be your first port of call in any town or city in New Zealand.

After an enjoyable sojourn in Christchurch, we made our way out through Riccarton, Sockburn and Hornsby to the main highway south and on to Geraldine on our way to Queenstown. The spectacular drive took us through Farlie and onto the twin lakes, Tekapo and Pukaki. New Zealand gets about 70% of it’s power from Hydro Electricity, these two lakes are part of what is know as the Upper Waitaki project.

Lake TekapoLake Tekapo
photo credit: Neerav Bhatt

We stopped at Lake Pukaki (at picnic grounds of course) to make lunch and promptly ran into a Dutch Anthropologist making a documentary about New Zealand and it’s people. An hour later the conversation had run its course and we exchanged details and headed on our way.

Queenstown is known as the outdoor experience capital of the world, and nothing exemplifies that experience more than AJ Hackett Bungy, the father of bungy jumping. Inspired by the Vanuatu ritual, Hackett developed a super-stretchy elastic bungee cord in the mid 1980s and demonstrated its use by throwing himself off the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1987. So a trip to Queenstown usually starts with visiting the Kawarau Bridge approximately 10km to the east of the city near Arrowtown.

Bungy Jumping - Queenstown New Zealand

The first time I had bungy jumped was right here in 1996. Back then the operation was a simple building and a small viewing platform. Not so today, AJ Hackett Bungy is a huge tourist operation with a bar and cafe, gift shop, a movie theatre and tiered viewing facilities. It’s car park is full of campervans, tour buses and sundry who come to watch as the young and not so young throw themselves off the historical bridge.

Queenstown’s attraction is that it is a year round destination. In the winter time it is close to three commercial ski fields, Coronet Peak, the Remarkables and Cardrona. In the summer time, it hosts numerous outdoor activities including my favorite hiking (known as tramping here).

We arrived in Queenstown in the midst of an international cricket match, India was playing New Zealand. This of course made for chaos with the traffic and Queenstown’s narrow streets are crowded at the best of times. We ended up have to back track around to the north side of Queenstown through Speargrass Flats to Arthurs Point where we were staying. Arthurs Point sits as the bottom of the Coronet Peak Ski Resort.

Downtown has no shortage of restaurants and cafes soafter shedding our luggage, we headed there to check out the lake front. It was overcast and the wind came directly off the Lake Wakatipu cooling down the visitors. The town however did not disappoint. Playing on a stage in a local park was the legendary New Zealand rock/roots reggae band dDub. After enjoying the music for a while we headed over to the Bombay Palace feast on some reasonably priced Indian food.

In the city center you need to start at the local information center on the corner of Camp and Shotover Sts right in the heart of the city. If you are going hiking you need to check into the Department of Conservation (DOC) center which is located on Shotover St above the Outside Sports.

The more advanced walks require permits and require that you log your trip with them. The Queenstown region has many levels of track from easy day walks to the advanced 3 day Motatapu Track made famous because it crosses over Shania Twain’s Queenstown retreat. We chose a track north of Arrowtown called the Big Hill Trail. A medium-high level track that climbs steeply into the back country over into Macetown.

Arrowtown, a former gold rush town, retains all the charm of a bygone era. The original town center has been maintained in its (largely) original feel (you won’t find MacDonalds here). We spend the day here wandering around the beautiful streets, the river and numerous parks then settled down to have lunch in the main town park with numerous families sitting in the mid afternoon sun.

In Queenstown it is difficult to even scratch the surface of what is possible in the middle of Middle Earth. We wandered up to the Coronet Ski field for the view of the Shotover Valley and drove down to watch the jet boat tours. But we are here to see the country, so taking the scenic route, we drove through the Cardrona Valley into Wanaka, another beautiful lake side town, then on into Haast Pass, the gateway to the West Coast, and where true to legend, the weather made a dramatic change for the worst.

Haast Pass

Haast is a small settlement on the bottom of the West Coast of the South Island. This place is definitely not Kaikoura. It is named for Julius von Haast, a 19th century explorer who was also geologist for local government. It consists of a general store, a petrol station and the home of Otoko Mobile Espresso Trailer. Being hauled by a Series One Landrover, they have cornered the market for Whitebait and Coffee in the lower West Coast.

Mobile Expresso Cafe in Haast

The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island and Nelson are a whole other story. The West Coast is perhaps the most raw New Zealand experience, being geologically separate from the rest of New Zealand, and the fabled Nelson Region, the area with the largest number of sunshine hours in Kiwiland. But that is another story.

This travel diary has been written Greg Royal, a Senior Executive for a US based Software Company and part time Blogger at Kiwibloke.org . His photos can be seen at Flickr (Kiwibloke)

All pictures are Copyright 2009 Greg Royal (except where specifically credited to other people) and reproduced with permission.

If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution

4 thoughts on “Driving from Christchurch to Queenstown – Heart of NZ South Island”

  1. Wow, it looks great. Iยดm looking forward to visit New Zealand next year. Next year i will study there busniess administration & engineering for one year. I think it will be great.

    Those pictures make hungry for more ๐Ÿ™‚

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