It’s easy to see why Shaun Liddy loves his job. As the Queenstown-based track operations manager for Ultimate Hikes New Zealand, he has the South Island’s dramatic landscape as his backyard.
“It’s certainly not a bad part of the world,” he laughs. “The scale of everything is staggering – the mountains, the lakes, the waterfalls. It’s like a snapshot of how the world used to be. It really is such a special place.”
Here, Liddy shares five natural wonders you must see on New Zealand’s South Island.
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Ultimate hiking adventure: Sutherland Falls
“To see the highest permanent waterfall in New Zealand, you have to walk the Milford Track. Sutherland Falls cascades 580 metres from a glacier-fed lake at the top so it’s always flowing, and when it rains, which is often, it becomes absolutely huge.
“You encounter it on day three of the four-day hike, which you can do with Ultimate Hikes New Zealand or independently. You need to be of at least moderate fitness to tackle this walk, but we take children as young as 10, so it’s something families with slightly older children could consider.
“The falls themselves are a four-kilometre side trip from the main track. Sometimes people skip it, which is a shame as they’ve just crossed the McKinnon Pass, the track’s highest and most strenuous point.
“You hear it long before you see it; it sounds like a jet engine.”
Tip: Before tackling the Milford Track, book a stay at Te Anau Lodge, a converted nunnery which includes the chance to eat breakfast in the former chapel.
Ultimate Insta moment: Lake Wanaka’s “That Wanaka Tree”
“In the Central Otago region, around an hour’s drive north-east of Queenstown, Lake Wanaka is a huge drawcard no matter the season. With the Southern Alps as the backdrop to the turquoise lake, it’s beautiful year round. In summer it’s all about water sports while in winter it’s a real ski town, with three ski resorts within half an hour.
“These days it’s also become famous for what’s known as ‘That Wanaka Tree’. It’s a willow tree that appears to be growing out of the water but really, it’s an optical illusion as the water is very shallow at that point. It makes an incredible photograph. It’s around a 10-20 minute walk from the cafes and restaurants at the township of Wanaka’s waterfront.”
Tip: Once you’ve taken your Insta-shot, kick back at Kika to enjoy acclaimed chef James Stapley’s locavore take on tapas, with dishes such as beef tartare with soy jelly. Feel like staying longer in town? Check into the family friendly Wanaka Hotel, just a minutes’ walk from the lake.
Ultimate serenity: Doubtful Sound
“Doubtful Sound is the lesser-known little sibling to Milford Sound and is found in the heart of Fiordland, at the south-western tip of the island. It’s a dramatic World Heritage landscape that’s so remote you can’t drive there. You have to go as part of a tour, with day and overnight cruises leaving from Te Anau.
“The main draw is the pristine scenery, with forest that comes right down to the water’s edge, steep cliffs and waterfalls. The thing that really hits people is the eerie quiet. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. The cruise captains will switch the engines off for what they call ‘the sound of silence’, and it gives you goosebumps. It’s such a powerful experience.”
Tip: Being at the edge of the world doesn’t mean going without creature comforts as Te Anau’s Redcliff Café proves with its smart menu of goats cheese profiteroles and NZ prime steak. Perched on the lake’s shore, Fiordland Lodge enjoys a prime position to soak up the mesmerising views.
Ultimate swimming spot: Blue Pools
“Around an hour’s drive north of Wanaka, the remote Blue Pools are stunning swimming holes filled with pale blue and green water thanks to the glacial melt. They’re actually part of the Makarora River, but are perfectly still and surrounded by untouched beech forest. The water is chillingly cold but it’s worth jumping in. There’s even a small gravel beach and on a sunny day the rocks soak up the warmth, making it a great spot for a picnic. The half-hour walk from the carpark is equally epic as it crosses several swing bridges with fantastic views.”
Tip: Tiny Makarora is the closest town to the Blue Pools and boasts the button-cute Wonderland Makarora Lodge, where guests stay in A-frame huts; some with outdoor bathtubs for soaking up the scenery. Hungry? Makarora Country Café (5507 Makarora-Lake Hawea Road, Makarora) will fill the gap with sausage rolls and excellent lemon pie.
Ultimate 'wow' factor: Te Anau Glowworm Caves
“There are few things as beautifully surreal as the sight of hundreds of glowworms inside an ancient limestone cave. The insects are native to New Zealand and live inside the caves on the edge of Lake Te Anau in Fiordland. To visit, you’ll need to do a tour with Real NZ, which involves a 45-minute scenic cruise to the western side of the lake. Seeing the glowworms involves a small boat ride into the second cave, an intensely quiet grotto where you feel like you’re looking at a sky full of stars. It gets cold in there so take a jumper!”
Tip: Centrally located in Te Anau just a short walk from the cruise boat’s docking point, Radfords on the Lake has a tour desk ready to arrange your visit to the caves. Feeling peckish? Taste the simple pleasures of a burger and a Kopiko Bay merlot at The Ranch Bar & Grill.
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