The ‘top of the South Island’ is the affectionate name given to the area of land on New Zealand’s South Island that connects Farewell Spit and the Marlborough Sounds. Some include places as far south as Christchurch under the ‘top of the South Island’ umbrella, but for the purposes of this article we’ll concentrate on the north coast.
This part of the country is known for its warm climate, gorgeous sandy beaches and vineyards, and is a popular holiday destination for Kiwis as well as foreigners.
One of the most comfortable ways to travel is to pick up a hire car and book yourselves into some AirBnBs. Lots of homeowners in the area will think nothing of giving up their beachside paradise for a few days and going camping nearby.
With so many beaches and bays around, it’s hard to decide where to spend your time, but the top of the South Island best bits are as follows.
TOP OF THE SOUTH ISLAND BEST BITS
A good place to start when visiting Farewell Spit is the carpark beside the Farewell Spit Cafe. From here, you will find information boards with walking routes and estimated timings. While you need a guide to go all the way to the end of the Spit, you can wander along one of the beaches for a couple of kilometres, hike over the ridge and return along the opposite beach quite easily (and legally) without one. Search for washed up pine cones in the sand or roll down the dunes before recharging your batteries with a coffee and a panoramic view.
From here, it’s a 15-minute drive to Wharariki Beach, which is quite possibly the most beautiful beach in New Zealand. Wide expanses of sand, massive dunes, weathered rock formations and resident seals all add to its appeal. Depending on how far out the tide is, you can explore some fascinating deep caves as the waves roll over your feet, echoing in the darkness.
Be aware that the wind can really pick up here. Even if you’re not prone to the cold, you might want to bring something to protect your skin from the effects of sand blasting! You’ll probably also need to give your car windows a good clean after driving out this way.
ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK
Two sports dominate in Abel Tasman National Park: hiking (or tramping as it’s known in New Zealand) and kayaking. Many people hike this section of coastline as part of the 60-kilometre-long Abel Tasman Coast Track, which runs between Marahau and Wainui, and you will notice the camping grounds along the way.
Alternatively, a great way to see the park from different perspectives is to join a kayaking tour. Some offer a combined hike and paddle day trip, which requires you to walk the first 3 or 4 hours of the track and to join your kayaking guide on a beach just before Anchorage for a water-based journey back. It’s worth giving yourself enough time to go off path and check out some of the beaches along the way, especially Apple Tree Bay.
If you’re lucky you might see endemic species, such as the flightless weka, on the path. Free parking is available in Marahau.
Kaiteriteri is a golden beach and seaside resort between Abel Tasman National Park and Motueka. In the summer and on weekends, it’s the closest a beach in this country might come to being ‘crowded’. It’s conveniently located next to a campsite and a small collection of eateries. There’s a floating platform for people to swim out to and dive off, and you can catch a ferry from here to Abel Tasman. Kaiteriteri also has a mountain bike park and is located close to Split Apple Rock – a naturally formed sculpture in the sea, which resembles its namesake.
MAPUA AND RABBIT ISLAND
For a truly remote beach with near-perfect swimming conditions, look no further than Rabbit Island. This island can be accessed via Nelson, but it’s much less crowded if you catch a short ferry ride from the dock in Mapua and stay on the northwest corner.
For around NZ$40 per day you can rent a bike and bring it over on the ferry. This will enable you to see the whole circumference of the island. Alternatively, explore some of the paths on foot until you find a huge patch of sand to call your own, then stake your claim for the rest of the day.
Base yourself in Picton and you can go swimming with dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds. This is an especially good location for dolphin swimming because you’re protected from the rougher seas and colder temperatures of the open ocean.
This is a great place to spot New Zealand fur seals and, if you’re especially lucky, you might even see a whale.
Picton is a handy location if you need to cross over to the North Island, with regular ferry services throughout the day. If you prefer to fly, your best bet is probably to take the 2-hour road trip to Nelson Airport. InterCity Buses do this journey once or twice a day with prices starting from NZ$26 for a single. You can find out more about their services using the tool below.