Those who visit New Zealand’s South Island in search of a traditional beachside holiday are likely to be disappointed. Te Waipounamu, as the Māori call it, is home to few white- or yellow-sand beaches, and the water in most regions is too cold to swim in, without a wetsuit, for the majority of the year. But the South Island’s coastline has other draws, among them dramatic scenery, captivating wildlife and splendid isolation. This is a place for artists, nature buffs and surfers, and is full of coastal mountains capped with snow and characterful villages where people don’t lock their doors. The summer months, from December to February, see an upswing in visitors but it is possible to find quiet spots at any time of year.
Hotel St Clair
Although the former gold-rush town of Dunedin has a population of just 120,000 people, it does have big-city features, such as the University of Otago (New Zealand’s oldest university), a thriving tech scene and artistic communities. It’s set around a harbour, which has a few small beaches where families congregate, but the main waterfront leisure district is the suburb of St Clair. Its beach is popular with surfers and there’s a heated outdoor pool fed with ocean water. The area is not packed with hotels but the best of the bunch is Hotel St Clair, a 26-room boutique property on the waterfront. It offers simple, modern accommodation – but the emphasis is definitely on the floor-to-ceiling windows that make you feel like you can reach out and touch the sea.
•Doubles from NZ$205 (£94) room only, + 64 3 456 0555, hotelstclair.com
Dunedin Holiday Park
This large holiday park a short walk from St Clair beach offers affordable stays and a convivial atmosphere (the proprietor is fond of giving guests bear hugs). Amenities include a great fish and chip shop, Wi-Fi across the site, a children’s playground, laundry room and modern kitchen areas, which set it apart from many of its South Island rivals. Accommodation ranges from three-bedroom, two-bedroom and studio motel units to a 12-room lodge with en suite rooms, plus standard cabins and tent sites. Occupancy ebbs and flows with the seasons, but even in winter you’ll find a number of eager families and free-spirited singles in residence. Independent travellers often use the park as a base to explore the nearby Otago peninsula, a beautiful (and virtually uninhabited) region of rolling hills, rugged beaches – and sea lions.
•Camp pitches from NZ$20 (£9), powered sites from NZ$26 (£12), lodge rooms from NZ$78 (£36), studios from NZ$117 (£53), three-bedroom motel unit NZ$128 (£58), +64 3 455 4690, dunedinholidaypark.co.nz
Cable Bay Lodge
The city of Nelson in the far north of the South Island has a thriving arts and crafts scene, and gets plenty of sunshine hours. The surrounding region is known for its sandy (and swimmable) beaches, coastal wineries and the impressive Abel Tasman national park. Cable Bay Lodge, about 20 minutes’ drive from the city, is on the shores of the sleepy Wakapuaka Inlet and feels like a secluded retreat. Two simple but comfortable treehouse cabins (the Nikau has a private balcony, while the Punga has a kitchen area) have views of the water, and the no-kids policy creates a sense of stillness. Hop in one of the lodge’s kayaks and paddle across to one of the many nearby deserted beaches for a picnic. Just don’t forget to make use of the cabins’ insect nets at night – the mosquitos here are ferocious.
•Rooms from NZ$225 (£102) room only (minimum two-night stay), +64 3 545 2310, cablebaylodge.co.nz
The Waters, Tasman
This three-suite guesthouse is a 40-minute drive from Nelson airport and puts guests within easy reach of Abel Tasman national park. It’s ideal for couples looking to escape for a weekend, or longer: elegant waterside rooms have king-size beds and modern entertainment systems. But the cost is surprisingly low for this sort of accommodation. It’s on a 10-hectare olive grove and vineyard, and there are gorgeous views in every direction, including the bay to the east and snow-capped Mount Arthur to the west. Phil and Claire Gladstone, husband-and-wife owners (and their sociable dog), strike the right balance between friendly and discreet. Best of all, the sandy beach is just metres from the suites: it’s a quiet spot that’s safe for swimming and is a great place to catch the sunset.
•Doubles from NZ$265 (£120) B&B, +64 3 52 66 714, thewaters.co.nz
Abel Tasman Marahau Lodge, Sandy Bay
Families and couples who want to take advantage of the activities on offer in Abel Tasman national park (such as hiking the coastal track, canyoning, horse riding or sea kayaking) won’t find a better base than this in the Nelson area. Abel Tasman Marahau Lodge is only 400 metres from the park’s entrance and just steps from the golden sand of Marahau Beach. The chalets – there are three, plus one suite – are configured for two to four people and are spacious, with high, sloping ceilings; all have access to a fully equipped communal kitchen (there are self-contained kitchens in the more expensive chalets). There is also a manicured garden, an outdoor hot tub and a spa, which make the lodge a welcoming place to relax after a day spent adventuring.
•Doubles from NZ$160 (£73) room only, +64 3 527 8250, abeltasmanmarahaulodge.co.nz
Greymouth Seaside Top 10 Holiday Park
Thrill-seekers and independent travellers flock to the wild West Coast region, a 650km-long stretch that contains five of New Zealand’s 14 national parks and five marine sanctuaries. Many visitors base themselves in the township of Greymouth. At the well-maintained Top 10 Holiday Park on the town’s outskirts, backpackers and families mingle, swapping stories about nearby hiking, biking and rafting opportunities. The property is part of a national network, so it’s a good choice for those looking to link in to New Zealand’s budget-travel infrastructure. The unspoiled beach beside the park more than compensates for the lack of shops in the immediate area.
•Camp pitches from NZ$42 (£19) Cabins with double beds and en suites from NZ$99 (£45), +64 3 343 8800, top10.co.nz/parks/greymouth-seaside
The decor may be dated but this resort, 30 minutes north of Greymouth in the small settlement of Punakaiki, has an atmospheric beach on its doorstep and a backdrop of rainforest. Most of the 63 rooms have two queen beds (a great budget-saving opportunity for groupd), though only half face the sea, so ask when you book. The restaurant, Jacob’s Grill, and bar take full advantage of the waterfront location – and are for residents only. There’s plenty to do nearby, including hikes around the striking Pancake Rocks and Blowholes and supervised kayaking, horse trekking and jade hunting on the beach.
•Doubles from NZ$148 (£68) room only, + 64 3 731 1168, punakaiki-resort.co.nz
Beachfront Hotel, Hokitika
Hokitika is one of the West Coast’s best-located settlements: from here, it’s possible to take a day trip to Pancake Rocks and the Southern Alps (for the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers). It’s also on the West Coast Wilderness Cycle Trail, which is popular with fitness enthusiasts in the warmer months. At the Beachfront Hotel, there’s secure bike storage for those on two wheels and therapeutic massage to soothe the muscles of all. Accommodation is basic, and parts of the hotel are in need of some love, but the rooms that face the beach are wonderfully atmospheric. There’s solid, affordable on-site dining at the Ocean View restaurant, and plenty of other options, such as local favourite Fat Pipi Pizza, within walking distance.
•Doubles from NZ$100 (£46) room only, + 64 3 755 8344, beachfronthotel.co.nz
Stewart Island Lodge
Southland is one of New Zealand’s least-visited regions, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less compelling than the rest of the country – it’s just colder. The seas teem with world-renowned Bluff oysters and the elusive kiwi bird can be spotted in the protected wilderness areas. Then there’s Stewart Island, a birdwatcher’s delight (it’s home to more than 100 species) with innumerable tiny bays that are best explored by boat. Stewart Island Lodge is a cosy B&B just five minutes from the ferry wharf with six rooms and soothing pastel-and-cream decor. Prince Harry stayed here on a recent trip to Stewart Island and Instagrammed the experience.
•Doubles (Sept-May) from NZ$220 (£100) B&B, +64 3 219 0085, stewartislandlodge.co.nz
SurfWatch Getaway Cottages, Kaikoura
The extensive Canterbury region, in the middle of South Island, is known primarily for its major centre, Christchurch, and for a variety of inland attractions including soaring mountains, and river sports such as whitewater rafting. However, there are a few coastal highlights: principally the settlement of Kaikoura, where a variety of rare marine mammals, such as giant sperm whales and dusky dolphins, converge off the coast. The five-acre SurfWatch Getaway Cottages property is about a 10-minute drive from the centre of Kaikoura, with dramatic sea views and access to an excellent surfing beach. The quirky rooms (check out the screaming-red bedspreads) have kitchenettes and outdoor seating areas. The owners will happily point you towards the best whale-watching and other tours in the area.
•Doubles from NZ$205 (£93) room only, +64 3 319 6611, surf-watch.co.nz
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