From sea kayaking throughout Abel Tasman National Park to eating green mussels in Havelock and washing them down with Marlborough’s best Sauvignon Blanc, to driving across the gorgeous landscape to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s South Island is a perfect trip. To discover the spirit of the island, with its beauty and wide space, no organized tour can make your fantasy come true – only self-drive at your own pace.

“How would you like it to be for this road trip?” “Mad Max” or “Thelma & Louise”? I ask Jang as I drive from Nelson Airport to the Grand Monaco Mercure Nelson on the northern tip of the South Island.

Jang looks at me for a few seconds before responding.

“Make it “Sideways,” if you can,” she says, making sure there will be no street terror or suicidal attempt – but most likely a nasty hangover. We’re already travelling through the most picturesque part of New Zealand, if not the planet. We aim to bring a bottle (or two) of local wine with us from destination to destination to drink at the conclusion of each day.

In fact, self-driving in New Zealand seems a little like a “homecoming” journey for me. Twenty years ago, while Peter Jackson was filming “The Lord of the Rings,” I took a road trip to the North Island in search of hobbit holes in Hobbiton and “hot stuff” like bubbling mud pools in Rotorua Lake.

Self-driving is the best way to experience New Zealand’s captivating landscapes and wonderful culture. Photo/Bangkok Big Ears

Now I’m behind the wheel once more, but this time I’m not alone. Jang is a trip master (she decides where to stop and for how long). Then there’s Becky, a chatty GPS gizmo. The girls assist with navigation and occasionally protest when I drive too fast or am about to run over the road’s slow-crawling creatures.

The plan is straightforward. We rent a car from Hertz at Nelson Airport and drive to the northern tip of the island to visit Abel Tasman National Park. Then, head south on the SH1 highway along the East Coast of the South Island until we reach Mt. Cook, the home of Edmund Hillary. We expect to explore the soul of New Zealand’s South over nine days of limitless roads and infinite space.

And the Kiwis will not keep us waiting for long.

Sea Kayaking along the marine reserve at Abel Tasman National Park. Photo/Bangkok Big Ears

At our first stop, Abel Tasman National Park, we do a half-day sea kayaking along the marine reserve and spend the second half tramping along the Abel Tasman Coast Track. It’s a beautiful day on the water and in the alpine wood with New Zealand’s signature curled fern.

But the best part of the day arrives when we get a bottle of 2012 Pinot Noir from Brightwater – a local winery in Nelson. The Pinot Noir, with dark cherry and savoury character, is too good, and we have a few too many at our place – Marahau Lodge – before realizing that it might be too late for dinner. Around seven o’clock, we storm into Park Café – the last restaurant that still has a light on.

“Are you closing?” I ask one lady – who is in charge in the kitchen.

“Are you hungry?” she asks.

“Pretty much.”

Celebrate a daily ride with a bottle of New Zealand’s local wine. Photo/Bangkok Big Ears
Slip Inn Cafe & Restaurant serves Green Shell Mussels with exceptional Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Photo/Bangkok Big Ears

We laugh hilariously before she cooks us stuffed bell pepper topping with melting mozzarella cheese. With a fine partner like a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, the bell peppers feed our hungry souls. We intend to have more wine, but there is a long way from Abel Tasman National Park to Kaikoura – a town on the east coast of the South Island.

The trip to Kaikoura takes four hours past several landmarks, sea port and townships such as Pelorus River; where part of “The Hobbit” is filmed beneath the Pelorus Bridge, Havelock, and Marlborough.

Havelock is billed as the Green Shell Mussel Capital of the world, while Marlborough is famous for the world’s finest Sauvignon Blanc. At the Slip Inn Café, where we stop for lunch, I have a bowl of delicious Green Shell Mussels. There’s some debate about whether we should order some wine since we have to drive. We resolve this by ordering low-alcohol wine to keep it under control. We are in Marlborough anyway: nobody can leave the town without a mouthful of Sauvignon Blanc.

White Bins is a roadside eatery where you can savor tasty seafood and enjoy stunning ocean views. Photo/Bangkok Big Ears

From Marlborough, the impressive scenery of the coastal ranges and rolling vineyards accompanies the rest of the way to Kaikoura. We intend to reach Kaikoura at 3 pm for the whale watch, but are distracted by the most-talked-about crayfish at Nin’s Bin. Established in 1977, Tin’s Bin serves freshly-cooked lobsters that Ricky- the owner, caught them from the sea by an ancient method of spearfishing. We take a sizable crayfish and eat it with our half-finished bottle of wine. Fantastic.

Roughly pulled together by the retired camp car and benches in the front yard, the “white bin” stands against the backdrop of the deep-blue South Pacific Ocean. Definitely, it’s the best place to lick your fingers with tasty food and stunning ocean views.

We roll into Kaikoura at 4 pm: it’s too late for the last call for the whale watch. The bloody crayfish just steals the show from the whale.

Apart from good food and good wine, New Zealand is noted for its sheep. They’re everywhere. Photo/Bangkok Big Ears

“Watching the whale will change your life,” I paraphrase what I heard from the Hertz guy in Nelson to the receptionist of Whaleway Station, expecting she would give us a second chance.

“Certainly, it will change your travel plan. You are late, darling,” she assures.

It does indeed. We come back in the morning, and thanks to the lady who is kindly enough to put us on the first boat for the whale. Jang is totally overwhelmed when she spots the spouting of her “Moby Dick” in the distance. The sperm whale then rolls forwards before waving a pan of tail to say: Goodbye.

After a few days in the South Island, driving is the best part of the journey, whether it’s over the ribbon of the high roads in Havelock or the Alpine scenic routes from Kaikoura to Hanmer Springs. As the roads lead us through the rural farming communities and rolling Alpine ranges, we enjoy the spirit of free will behind the steering wheel. More often than not, we give too much time for a detour without a feeling for reaching the real destination.

Getting off the main road is always the best part.

The Church of the Good Shepherd is set against a breathtaking view of Lake Tekapo and the Mt. Cook range. Photo/Bangkok Big Ears
Visitor sits on the bench and enjoys the panoramic views of Lake Tekapo from the top of Mt. John. Photo/Bangkok Big Ears

In Hanmer Springs, as counting on “Becky” the GPS’s advice, we drive into the farm, mistaking it for the restaurant. Instead of a dish of pan-fried salmon and a glass of Riesling for lunch, we get a sneer from an untrustworthy sheepdog.

In Lake Tekapo, where throngs of tourists are always herded around the heritage church and front lake, we make a difference by driving to the top of Mt John after hours. Here, on the top of the mountain, we have the lookout for ourselves as all the tourists have left. We sit on the bench and watch the panoramic views, as the turquoise-coloured lake stretches north-south against the majestic snowy range of Mt Cook. I don’t even want to take a photo. The view is too stunning for digital bits – but brain cells, and I wish I could come back to see it again with my own eyes.

The tip of Mt Cook turns pink in the evening. Photo/Bangkok Big Ears

The last section of our road trip is from Lake Tekapo to Mt Cook, and the views are breathtaking. Unlike neither the rolling vineyards of Marlborough nor the Alpine roads in Hanmer Springs, the road to Mt Cook gives you an exotic feeling. It hugs the edge of Lake Pukaki before twisting its way to the majestic range of New Zealand’s highest mountains and largest glaciers. We’re driving into the mountains, into the home of Zealand’s hero – Sir Edmund Hillary.

Our journey ends at The Hermitage Hotel, and we celebrate our road trip quietly on the balcony of the hotel sipping the white wine and watching the tip of Mt Cook turning pink in the evening.

Marahau: A Hidden Gem on New Zealand’s South Island

Tucked away in the northern reaches of South Island lies Marahau, a quaint village home to just 500 residents. In this tranquil haven, you’ll find two restaurants and a charming local wine shop nestled along the bay.

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Thailand driving license, with English language, can be used for driving in New Zealand. Driving in New Zealand is easy. If you can drive in Bangkok, you will survive the NZ’s road. Keep the speed at the limit, and follow the rules of the road. For more information and planning a road trip in New Zealand, visit Pure New Zealand and Discover New Zealand.