Back in August, we mentioned how it was a great time to travel in New Zealand. With almost no overseas tourists, there’s almost no traffic on the roads, as we headed to the top of the North Island in a Mercedes-Benz GLE.
Fast forward four months, and it’s time for a South Island Road Trip. We used a wedding anniversary as an excuse to drive a BMW M235i around the lower South Island. Of course, we purposely timed this trip to not coincide with school holidays or the Christmas holidays. Is it still the perfect time to travel our country, and how would an M235i xDrive Gran Coupe go on holiday?
BMW did suggest an SUV for this trip, but I wanted to prove that you don’t need an SUV for a long trip, especially just for two people. The four-door M235i seemed like the perfect choice; sporty, comfortable, and a delicious-sounding engine.
Day 1: Christchurch – Akaroa – Christchurch
We arrived in Christchurch and Ubered ($25) to the BMW dealer on Moorhouse Avenue on a very wet Sunday. Loading up the boot, it took one very large suitcase, one medium-sized one, and also my largish hard drone case. Perfect. We could have fitted more soft luggage in there, but didn’t have any. Of course, the entire back seat was empty too, so plenty of room. A quick pair up of my phone to Bluetooth and we hit the road.
But we didn’t get far, as we headed to an early lunch at the Route 66 Diner. We’ve been here before, and because America, we had to go back again. The food is great and the staff friendly. You could pick a much worse place to have lunch than here. I was looking forward to seeing some American cars parked outside, but I expect the consistent rain kept them all away.
After lunch, we cruised out of Christchurch, to go to Akaroa. It’s a place my wife had never been to, so was definitely on the must-see list. The rain eased off halfway there, and finally we got some almost-blue skies poking through the clouds. As we went through Little River, there was something I haven’t seen before: Silo Stays. Literally, silos from a farm. You hire one as a motel unit, and sleep in it. Don’t panic though – they look pretty flash inside. I would have loved staying in a silo for the night, but my wife? Not so much.
The drive over the hill to Akaroa tested out the M235i’s handling nicely, and it sure handles nicely. The grip with AWD is excellent, the steering precise, and the brakes powerful, with nice pedal feel. The engine – a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder twin-scroll turbo-petrol, snarls and crackles when you wind it out, even in Comfort mode. It’s oh-so torquey too, great for those bendy roads when you can get it around in a higher gear. Handling on those tight corners is fairly flat, and nicely neutral. So far, so good for the M235i.
Arriving in Akaroa, it was much like it was the last time I was here many years ago, with one exception; a lack of people. The main street was quiet, with very few cars parked or driving up and down, and there was a distinct lack of visitors on this Sunday afternoon.
I took to the Akaroa Museum while my wife went to spend money in the shops. I like small-town museums – you can learn a lot about a town’s history in a small space and small amount of time. As is common, it was quite a sad history with settlers chopping down 99% of the native trees and then burning off the rest. Then they found whales, and started killing them off for oil and whale bone. People! They can really suck, but at the time that’s all they knew. Chop, burn, slaughter.
I met my wife in a local coffee shop, The Bach. Again, not many people there, so quick service and good coffee to be had. Post coffee, we took a slow drive through the township, and up to the old lighthouse. It’s only two minutes from the township, up on a hill. It was first used way back in 1880, and used to be located at the entrance to Akaroa Harbour. One hundred years later, it was replaced with an automated light, and shifted to its present location.
Since it was almost 5pm, we headed back to Christchurch, to Rolleston and our BNB, Garden View Bed & Breakfast – one of the friendliest BNBs I’ve even been to. Tomorrow’s plan is a slow drive to Dunedin.
Day 2: Christchurch – Dunedin
We woke to a sunny Christchurch day at our Air BNB in Rolleston. It would be a cruisy drive today, stopping at Timaru to see family and before Timaru, visiting Temuka to buy…pottery, of course.
But first, a hearty, cooked breakfast by John at the BNB. Sausages, eggs, toast, and more. It was cooked fresh for us, and it was a great start to the day.
Traffic was a bit heavier on Highway One, but still no real dramas on the road. We got to Temuka as my wife Googled for pottery places, but we couldn’t find a single one. You could say I was disappointed (I wasn’t). It was a bit weird, as I expected huge billboards at the side of the road in the town, saying something along the lines of “Wives, come spend loads of cash here”, or similar. But no, not a single sign pointing to any pottery places at all. Next time, maybe.
After Timaru and coffee, it was back on the road to Dunedin. The sun was shining, and the M235i humming along. It may be an M Performance model, but on the open road it’s dead quiet. Honestly, there is no noise from the engine inside the car at all, and wind noise is minimal. There is quite a bit of tyre roar, almost to be expected with such low-profile tyres. I drove the car from Christchurch to Dunedin in Eco Pro mode all the way, and it was effortless. We said it before; performance cars with loads of torque are a breeze to drive in any sort of eco mode. The car did brilliantly, with our average fuel consumption so far sitting around 7.5L/100km. At a steady 100km/h with no wind, the car is hovering around 5.0L/100km. That’s pretty good for something with 200kW of power.
Before Dunedin, we stopped in Oamaru at Steampunk HQ. I’d never been there, and it was something on the must-do list. Well worth the $10 entry fee, there was a large number of different displays in the two large rooms, and then there was quite a bit outside as well. Nice to see some other tourists there too, supporting local businesses. If you have any interest in Steampunk at all or simply want to know more about it, Steampunk HQ is a must-see attraction.
After that we went back to the car, which I’d parked around the corner. We had no idea just around the corner from there was Harbour Street, a street that was full of grain and wool stores and other buildings from the late 1800s. There are a few steampunk shops, but also a café, sculptor and other arty types of shops. It’s well worth a visit, if not just for the architecture. Lots of the shops that now use the buildings have retained the original wooden floors, and I could just picture those hard-working men in the 1800s, dragging bales of wool around.
After walking Harbour Street, we headed south finding almost no traffic on the road to Dunedin to another AirBNB. The weather isn’t looking great for our trip through the Catlins tomorrow, so it’s fingers crossed for fine weather.
Day 3: Dunedin to Tuatapere
Well, the weatherman lied, as we rose to a brilliant, sunny day. We headed over to Mosgiel first off, for breakfast with a friend, and then it was on the road at 9 to do our drive through the Catlins. Heading south, we took the left turn in Balclutha to go on the Southern Scenic Route – a road we’d be following off and on all day. The road from Balclutha to Molyneux Point was fantastic – a mix of fast sweepers and some nice corners where the radius tightened up as you went around them. As you can imagine, the M235i nailed it. It was like this road was made for it, as the car’s smaller size and AWD ate this road up.
We stopped at Molyneux Point for a photo and a quick view of the ocean. Quite interesting reading about Molyneux; like Akaroa, the settlers came and took so much from the land. The whalers also brought measles with them, wiping out a third of the Māori population. James Cook didn’t land here, but did name the place after one of his officers, but back in Britain they misread Molineux as Molyneux, and the rest is history.
From there we took the coast road through Kaka Point, on our way to Nugget Point and its lighthouse. The car park was almost empty, a repeat of our Far North Adventure at the Cape Reinga lighthouse. On the walk to the lighthouse (around 15 minutes each way) we passed a Royal Spoonbill colony, then sea lions, then fur seals. They were a long way down from us of course, but it was cool observing them from the walking track.
We got to the lighthouse, and there was a total of 4 other people there. Not exactly crowded, and that was fine by us. It’s an easy walk (although there are sheer drops on one side) and the views in every direction are stunning. Highly recommended.
Once back at the car, we headed back to Kaka Point to take a left and follow the Southern Scenic Route to our next destination, the McLean Falls. The road we took through the Catlins Forest was awesome, another road made just for this car. Naturally, my passenger asked (more like told) me to slow down as car sickness was coming on, but it’s still a great road in an awesome car. The M235i sits so well on the corners, and it tracks beautifully. I’d take it again on this road in a heartbeat.
As we went through Owaka, I got asked to stop so we could take photos of Teapot Land. While the roads were generally pretty quiet, I think everyone converged on this one location to look at teapots. If you are going through Owaka, grab a photo. I did notice an ironic touch in the town of Owaka; they seemed to have more coffee shops per 100 metres than any other town we’d been through. There were café and coffee signs all over the place, but no tea rooms. Strange, but true.
After 90 minutes of driving, we arrived at the road to take us to The McLean Falls. This road is metal with some heavy rutting, but the AWD BMW didn’t care, performing well up and down each metal hill. We’d passed two other signs to waterfalls on the way here, but apparently this waterfall is the most impressive. I’m not sure the photos will do it justice, but it’s well worth the 20-minute walk each way to get to the 22-metre high falls. Even the track to the falls reminds you how stunning our country is, as you walk through dense forest, with birdsong in the air. This was another highly recommended activity. We only passed a dozen or so people on the way to and from the falls, so nicely quiet.
Back in the car, we headed towards our overnight stay in Tuatapere, west of Invercargill. Our BNB tonight is an old, 1920s converted jailhouse from the town, on its original site. It’s small, fun, and a little bit funky. There’s most mod cons like a toilet, shower and TV, but there’s also the original doors – which are massively thick – and some history of policing in Tuatapere on the wall.
Day 4: Tuatapere to Te Anau via Milford Sound
After an early breakfast, it was back on the road to Te Anau. We’d need to pass through there to get to Milford Sound, to do a cruise we’ve booked in, and needed to be there by 12.30.
Can I just say to any locals in this area: that road from Tuatapere to Manapouri is a gem. Twisty and windy, then long sweepers – it seems to have it all, and I dare say in the right car you could set a very reasonable and safe average speed. Getting into Manapouri, it looks pretty much the same as I remember it from around 20 years ago, and that’s a good thing. If there’s one thing that Queenstown (and now Wanaka) has lost, it’s that small town, friendly feeling. Manapouri is still small, although we did see some new subdivisions heading out of the town.
Leaving Tuatapere, we stopped at the historic Clifden Suspension Bridge. Built in 1898 but no longer used, but still New Zealand’s longest wooden suspension bridge, spanning 111.5 metres over the Waiau River.
Again the roads…they put North Island roads to shame. Amazing corners, no potholes. Travelling from Manapouri to Te Anau was a dream drive. Great scenery too, as we stopped too many times to take shots here and there.
Pulling into Te Anau, it too still has a good vibe, and it’s definitely somewhere I could live. The lake was stunning – and not a cloud in the sky – so we grabbed coffee, checked the time, and found we weren’t going to make it to Milford Sound in time to catch our cruise. We motored off, and in the rush I forgot to check one thing: fuel. After hunkering down in the M235i to make up time, a short while later the range dropped down below 100km, with 60km left to get to Milford Sound, and another 100+km to get back to Te Anau. “Do they sell petrol in Milford Sound?” my wife asks. “Of course,” I say, having no idea if they do, or do not. This could get a bit stressful.
But there was no denying the stunning scenery we drove through and past. I shamefully admit, I have never been to Milford Sound in my life, and so have never driven on this road. It ranks up there as one of the best driver’s roads ever. We cruised through endless glades of old beech trees, the sun shining through here and there, past beautiful lakes and peaks high up in the sky, topped with snow (yes, in November!).
It was an incredible road to travel on, even with the fuel gauge plummeting.
After what felt like forever, we got to the entrance to the Homer Tunnel, and waited at the traffic lights. We followed just one other car into the tunnel – we’d barely seen any other traffic in either direction – and started the downward drive, into the 1.2Km tunnel. I remember my brother telling me he used to coast his 1965 FC Vauxhall Victor 101 down the tunnel and then all the way to Milford Sound, where he was working in the 1980’s. This was great for my fear of running out of gas, but then I remembered – if there was no gas in Milford Sound, we’d have to go back up the tunnel. Insert your own expletive here.
On the other side and daylight, it was a climb down the mountain, with 25km/h switchbacks and once again, stunning scenery. I hope those that work at Milford Sound appreciate what they have.
We got into Milford Sound, and I stopped a local DOC worker, asking if there was fuel. He bit his lip, not a good sign. There is fuel, he said, “but it’s a bit fickle”. He pointed in the direction of the unmanned pumps, and since we managed to get in five minutes early, decided to chance some petrol. He did give a warning that it cost the earth, but guess what? It was cheaper then buying petrol in Wellington. Go figure. The pump even worked, and we got some liquid gold into the car.
I put enough in to get us back to Te Anau and we parked the car – for $20 for 5 hours. A bargain? It didn’t feel like it. But we didn’t have any choice, there’s nowhere else to park, so we went on our cruise; We had booked in with Cruise Milford because they had smaller vessels, and were glad we did. The staff always seem friendlier on the smaller boats/buses/whatever, and this was no exception. Mind you, the car park was almost empty, and a total of 18 people got on board to do the cruise, including us. It was a bit sad when the deck hand told us this was the most people they’d seen on a cruise for a week. I’m not sure how the 3 or 4 cruise companies are staying in business there, as it’s deathly quiet. Great for tourists, not so great for paying the bills.
But the cruise was awesome. As I said, it was my first time to Milford Sounds, and it didn’t disappoint. We saw multiple waterfalls – and went right under them, we saw penguins and seals, and we had Bottle Nose dolphins playing with the wake of the boat more than once. Add to that a cloudless day, and it was a perfect event. Do I highly recommend it? Absolutely, if you haven’t done a Milford Sound cruise, book it now while there aren’t hordes of people also doing it.
After two hours of cruising around the sounds and being blown away by the beauty and majesty of it, we headed back to shore, got in the car and left town. On the return trip to Te Anau, we stopped here and there to take photos. Every shot on this road is amazing and the lack of traffic was even more so amazing. If I said we’d seen 30 cars between Milford Sounds and Te Anau, I’d be lying; it was barely half that. Again, it’s a great time to travel. We did stop at Mirror Lakes, one of those places where everyone stops to take a photo. When the water is still, the mountains reflect in the lake and it looks amazing. But not today, too many ripples, so we made a pact to come back another time and check it out.
With that, we headed to our Air BNB in Te Anau, still cloudless and a decent 18.5 degrees. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow for our trip to Queenstown/the Blue Pools and Wanaka, but it was supposed to rain today too, so here’s hoping.
Day 5: Te Anau to Wanaka
Rain? Not today. Yet another still and clear day. The lack of wind was an eye opener, and those in Wellington will understand. After breakfast, we went and filled the car with premium gas in Te Anau ($1.95 a litre, so cheap compared to home), and started the drive to Queenstown. We wouldn’t stop in Queenstown, but instead would take the road around the lake to Glenorchy and then Paradise.
It was during this time I had to admit the M235i isn’t perfect. The roar from the tyres on coarse chip seal can be pretty loud, turning into a drone. It’s not the most pleasant of noises, and I think when the tyres were near worn out, I’d be replacing them with another brand. As far as things I don’t like about the car, that’s about it so far. It’s a brilliant tourer, believe it or not.
On that road to Queenstown, I left the car in Eco Pro mode the whole time, and let the torque of the engine do all the work. There’s so much torque, it’s worth using Eco Pro when you want to save gas, or simply have the transmission do less changes. When adaptive cruise control on and the car in Eco Pro, it’s a pretty serene and easy drive.
As we approached Queenstown, the Devil’s Staircase showed up in the SatNav. I would have loved to pushed the car harder around these corners – again, there was almost no traffic – but my wife and her stomach overruled me, so we had to take it sedately. Still, it made me drive the car more smoothly than ever, checking my lines through the corners to make sure she didn’t get car sick.
We hit Queenstown, and immediately got stuck in a traffic jam (!); this was due to both road works and general traffic. Every time I go to Queenstown, I can’t get over how busy it is, and it’s not tourist traffic, just normal everyday traffic. We got through town as quick as we could and headed to the Glenorchy turnoff. Like Milford Sound, this was a road and place I’d never been to. That road meanders along the lakefront of Lake Whakatipu, then up, then down, along the lake again. Then it’s up and over some hills, quick corners, long corners. I’m so jealous of people who live in the South Island and have access to roads like this.
And that’s not to mention the stunning scenery – it’s mind blowing. At one point, we came around a corner to this sight:
It was now lunchtime, and the local café on the main road was pretty busy, so we took a turn and stumbled on Sugar Loaf Café. The food here was superb, as was the coffee. A nice relaxing lunch before we drove on to Paradise.
Post lunch, we took a slow drive through side roads of the town of Glenorchy, it’s a quiet, peaceful place, much like Queenstown was decades ago.
Off we went to Paradise. After 15 minutes, we hit a metal road, the AWD BMW not worried about it a bit. Then we got to this sign:
Well, we have to go on – we weren’t going to come all this way and not get to Paradise. The road did get worse, not quite a farmer’s track but not far from it either. We passed 3 rental SUVs – two Highlanders and an Outback – all looking at us like we were crazy. Maybe we are. At last, we got to the town of Paradise.
That sign? That’s the whole town. There’s a couple of houses here and that’s it. Still, we didn’t care, we had made it. Knowing that Paradise is where they filmed some of Lord of the Rings, we continued on the metal road. Isengard is somewhere here, and we wanted to find it.
Then we got to a ford to cross through. Should we do it in the M235i? It didn’t look too deep, so took the plunge, and got through it slowly. More metal roads, some of them pretty bumpy, and then another, deeper ford to cross. Who said you need an SUV? The Motorsport BMW cruised through it. On we went, still not finding Isengard but loving the scenery.
Well, until we got to ford #3. It was as deep as the last one, but the far side of it rose up far too high; we’d bottom out if we attempted it. Okay, this was a time when an SUV would have been better. Still, we’d seen some amazing scenery and were happy to turn around and head off. I loved the road back to Queenstown all over again, and we then took the Crown Range Road towards Wanaka, our place for tonight. The corners on the beginning of this road are amazing too, as is the view from the lookout point.
We had mostly light traffic all the way through to Wanaka, and again had not seen a speck of rain. I am loving the South Island.
Day 6: Wanaka to Burkes Pass
Today was going to be a fair bit of driving; we’re off to see the Blue Pools, a natural attraction on the road to Haast. Of course, we aren’t going to Haast, so after our hour drive to the Blue Pools, it’d be an hour back to Wanaka, then hack a left to go to Burkes Pass, our destination for tonight.
Leaving Wanaka on another clear day, we headed up the side of Lake Hawera, another stunning driving road. Mainlanders may not know just how good they have it, when it comes to driver’s roads. Crossing The Neck, we moved lakes and now drove up the side of Lake Wanaka, heading north. After we took The Neck, I saw a total of 3 cars in the 50km drive to the Blue Pools. Even the car park at the Blue Pools was almost deserted.
It was a very easy 20-minute walk to the Blue Pools crossing a couple of suspension bridges on the way there. One of the bridges overlooks the pools. They really are stunning, a natural blue colour, and we could see trout swimming in the current. If you were driving down from Haast, this would be a perfect place to stretch your legs and give the kids something special to remember.
After photos, we walked back to the car, and headed south again, stopping in at Makaroa Country Café for coffee and some lunch. It’s a surprisingly big café with plenty of room, a gift shop and some decent food. The staff are extremely friendly, and the place is covered with number plates from all over the world, as well as a large number of flags from around the world hanging from the ceiling.
Lunch over, it was back on the road for the drive to Wanaka, then on towards Lake Tekapo, through the Lindis Pass. I love this road, again so many great corners that seemed to be made for the M235i. It’s such a nimble little car, it ate the corners up.
We went past Twizel – itself a town now growing, with lots of new black houses going up in subdivisions. Onwards we drove, with ominous dark clouds ahead. Then the rain came. Since this was our last full day and it was supposed to rain most of the time while we were on holiday, we weren’t too concerned about having rain now. And it poured down.
We bypassed Lake Tekapo, last time we found it extremely over-priced for accommodation, so we drove another 15 minutes to Burkes Pass, almost exactly halfway between Lake Tekapo and Fairlie. We’re in another BNB, this one attached to a general store. The bonus? The owner of Three Creeks Service Station is a total car guy, and while he was away at the Beach Hop, there are still three buildings you can walk around and look inside, and they are filled with automotive memorabilia. You don’t have to stay here to look through them – they are selling stuff, after all – but it did mean I could take as long as I wanted to look through each one. Mostly it’s automotive signs for sale, some reproductions and some genuinely old. It’s a bit of car nirvana, and if you are passing through Burkes Pass, stop in and check it out. Just don’t take your wallet, there’s some pretty tempting stuff there for sale. Since we’re flying out, this helped me resist from buying a big-ass Shell petrol sign. Next time we drive through though, it’s going in the boot.
Since there’s no food in Burkes Pass, we took a drive into Kimbell to get dinner, eating at the Silverstream Hotel. The place wasn’t full but there was a good mix of people. Outside were three farmer’s utes – complete with dogs in the back – a toy hauler, an Everest towing a jetski, and a Colorado towing a trailer full of dirt bikes.
Inside the hotel, it’s still old school and I like that. There’s a real fireplace, and the bar could be from the 1960s, if it wasn’t for the craft beers on tap. I was tempted to go down the craft beer route, but decided to have a Speights instead. When in Rome and all that.
This is out last night away, and yet again they’ve forecasted for rain tomorrow.
Day 7: Burkes Pass to Christchurch
It rained all night but the morning was stunning. I risked not taking any photos of the place last night, so took them as we left instead. I’ve been past this joint before, and no idea why I never stopped here. The Caddy Eldorado out the front, along with the old Air Stream RV and a 1950’s Chev Belair should have been big signs to stop in and take a look. I expect most of the traffic going past does the same thing; everyone is trying to get to Lake Tekapo or Fairlie, and simply cruises past the front door.
We managed to pat the lamas that roamed the property this morning, and check out the friendly pigs, one of which is called Turbo. Sounds speedy. Photos done, we hit the road straight through Fairlie and on to Geraldine. That was a town we stopped in last in 2018, and loved the small-town atmosphere. So it was on the cards again to stop for a coffee and for my wife, to shop. We searched for the small Barkers factory shop, but couldn’t find it. We purchased way too much stuff at this store last time, with many bargains to be had of good quality Barkers’ jams and other stuff.
After asking, we found they’d moved to a new building across the road, behind the vicarage. The vicarage itself was built in 1900, and after being put up for sale in 2017 was brought by the owners of Barkers who undertook a full restoration. Now it stands in all its glory, shiny and new, and is used as accommodation.
Then there’s the new Barkers Foodstore and Eatery behind the vicarage. This is a brand-new building complete with a café, which was almost full with people. I’m sorry Barkers, for me you’ve lost that small shop vibe. All white and shiny and dare I say it, a little expensive for a ‘factory shop’. I’m not even sure if they’re calling it a factory shop now, but that’s how I saw it before.
We motored out of Geraldine after spending far too long in the town. Checking our timing, it was going to be close to get back to BMW to drop the car off, then Uber to the airport in time to check in our bags. Not good! Because of this, we chose the Inland Scenic Route rather than heading straight to Highway One – we figured there’d be a lot less traffic. We were right – the road was almost deserted for the 50-minute drive north back on to Highway One. It was a good choice, and we certainly made up some time on this road.
Back on the main highway, we settled in for a steady drive north with the traffic. We made it to drop the car off and get to the airport with twenty minutes to spare, so our choice of route was a good one.
So that was it – in a rush, our trip was over. We’d covered 2,500 kilometres in seven days, and the BMW used fuel at a rate of 7.8L/100km. For such a performance car, that’s pretty bloody good. Where we could safely, we used some of that performance, so that 7.8 is excellent in my view.
Did we manage with a four-door sedan, rather than an SUV? Totally, and I’m so happy we didn’t take an SUV. It would have likely used more fuel and been less able on the windy roads (of which there were plenty).
Next time you are looking at purchasing a car, don’t feel you have to buy an SUV because everyone else is. You will survive without one, even on holiday.