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It had been a hot minute since my last road trip through the South Island, and we were already missing the expansive vistas, the beautiful lakes and the great food. So this holiday break called for another trip, but this time around the brief was a bit different – given I had both my parents and my in-laws coming to visit New Zealand, we wanted to take it slow and focus on revisiting some of the must-see touristy spots.

With that, we departed on a 1700km roadie to show them a little bit of what the South Island has to offer. With a party of six plus luggage, our transport options were threefold: getting a campervan, hiring two cars or a seven-seater. Campervans get seriously expensive during summer months and we didn’t want to split the group when driving, so the seven-seater felt like the right choice. 

Our trip started with a short flight to Christchurch, and there in the airport we picked said seven-seater. This time I was on a roll and called the make, model, year and colour right: our ride was a white 2021 Kia Carnival, with the 2.2 turbodiesel. Not a lot of options to choose from, I know, but a victory is a victory!

Many other cars would have struggled to deal with all we had to carry using their full boot. The Carnival, however, gobbled it all up while still having a fully usable third row. Minivans are often faced with a lot of prejudice but I genuinely think they’re the best body shape for those needing a proper mix of cargo capacity and people moving capabilities while still having good comfort. 

From the airport, we drove straight to the hotel, and first impressions were good, both mine with the car and with the old folks towards Christchurch. By the time the rooms were ready and we finished checking in it was lunch time, so we stopped by the beautiful Riverside Market. With many food options, it was easy to find something for every taste. We ended up ordering food from many different places there and everything got a seal of approval. 

The rest of the long summer day was spent exploring the city, from the Botanic Gardens to the shopping spots around The Crossing. No visit is complete without a stroll through New Regent Street, which was looking as bubbly as always. From there you can also see the charming trams that cross the city and can make jumping from one attraction to the next a breeze.

The Cathedral, that had its spire damaged as a result of the earthquakes, has now been further stabilised and has had engineers recently assess its full structure as part of the restoration efforts. These events have profoundly shaped Christchurch’s culture and it is amazing to see how much the city’s changed every time I visit.

Early the next day, we continued our way southwest, and I got the chance to test some of the Carnival’s motorway manners and tech. In typical Kia fashion, the adaptive cruise control works great here, braking and accelerating very smoothly, all while clocking 6.3l/100km (with my expat brain still using the old units). On our way, there was the small town of Geraldine, home and headquarters of Barker’s, a very traditional food product brand. A visit to their factory store is one of the highlights here, where you can get a taste of almost everything they make, be it in the tasting stations or their cabinet and menu products. From there, it was a short drive until our first actual destination, Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd. 

The blue hue given to the lake waters by the glacial ice melt is an amazing sight that got a gasp from people in the car, and having the picturesque church there makes it all the more special. It is not by chance that this is one of the most photographed buildings in NZ, and despite many other trips to the South Island, this was our first time in summer, which means lupins everywhere. 

Because of that, we decided to make a quick stop at a lupin field just a couple of minutes away from the church to snap some pictures of the group and the car. The lupin conversation can be quite controversial from a conservation standpoint, but their visual appeal is undeniable!

Back on the road, we tried to get to the Alpine Salmon Co in time, but we missed their working hours. They have many options of local salmon meat there, and we really enjoyed their sashimi last time we were there. Not all was lost, though, because the long day meant there was still some sunlight left for a quick dip in Lake Pukaki’s absolutely freezing waters. 

The overnight stop was in Twizel, and the first destination the next day were the Clay Cliffs. You’ll find a track that leads to impressive rock formations that are over 20 million years old and a nice view of the valley. Our time here was quick as we had an important drive in front of us: the one towards the imponent Mount Cook.

At this point we had barely scratched the 900km range of the Carnival, but this is one of the most spectacular drives in the whole country, with the stop below being so iconic that it even made its way to the Photo Scapes section of the Gran Turismo game series.

Weather forecast promised an overcast day but nature blessed us with a beautiful one, so we decided to go on a limb and do the Hooker Valley track. It reaches a glacier lake through a 3-hour return tramping track with amazing alpine vistas that are hard to beat. The scorching sun on the way back meant every single one of us returned with a different kind of sunburn, despite compulsive sunblock application. So much for trusting the forecast! 

We slept like rocks from in Twizel again and started the next day by going to Lake Ohau. Winds were at an all-time high there, so photographing people was almost impossible. The Carnival didn’t seem too fussed with it, so we snapped a few pictures of it before hitting the road again. 

You can only cross these mountains from one side to the other through a handful of passes, Lindis Pass being one of them. When crossing it, it’s very clear you’re going through a different landscape. Definitely not something for this trip, but it is still in our checklist to get to see it covered in snow. 

I might have said this before, but Wanaka is one of my favourite places in the whole country, so it’s always great to be back. I was there this year for a ski trip, and now seeing the small town in “summer mode” proved it is indeed a year-round wonder. 

It had been a while since we had seen the Carnival parked up in an urban environment. The previous generation had a very inoffensive and conservative design, but the Korean brands have been taking more risks since then, and it shows here. It looks modern without trying too hard, and with that very distinctive light signature, it got a pass from everyone in our travel party. We found a parking spot in the way busier than normal streets and went for dinner. The choice this time was a restaurant called Alchemy. Right by the lake front, it has a menu that changes frequently with many surprising and tasty options. 

Another staple in our visits here is the Rippon winery. They offer a free wine tasting with great views of the lake and make a wine that is only made there and in Germany, the Orsteiner, and is a great choice for summer picnics. And if you have the time (and the disposition), consider climbing up Roys Peak. It is not the easiest climb, but the view from the Coromandel Peak is breathtaking and has been my phone background ever since I climbed it, I just can’t get enough of it. 

We then drove back to Lake Hawea, where we spent the night in a motel that had the most amazing sunset views of the lake. Once checked out, we went through the super windy Crown Ranges road, where I tried to keep the car in the second of its eight gears to spare the brakes as much as I could, even though they still felt (and smelled) a bit cooked due to all the 15km/h bends. Whenever taking them, I think of Mad Mike drifting through them in that famous video. 

Just by the foot of this road you’ll find Arrowtown, another lovely small town in this region. First established during the gold rush times, it looks its best in autumn and has plenty to see. My mother and mother-in-law loved all the shopping options and the whitebait fritter you can get at the deli in the central square is to die for. 

We then finally made our way to Queenstown. The day was hot, traffic was intense, and there were lots of people around. Last time I was here it looked like a building site, and it was all in preparation for this very busy season. It was a big change in scenery, and it’s great to see so many people getting to enjoy what is arguably one of the most famous towns in the land of the long white cloud.

The check into this day’s accomodation marks the halfway point of the trip, and is where I end this first post. I’ll pick from here on the next, cover Queenstown and surroundings, the New Year’s Eve and some more impressions about the Carnival. Stay tuned for it and Happy 2023 from TarmacLife!

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