Reviving the Grand Tour on South Island coastal roads

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”. Write your own Grand Tour chapter.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”, so said St Augustine, and New Zealand’s South Island surely must have a chapter reserved all for itself, and a deliciously engaging, page turning one at that. The concept of the Grand Tour by motor car certainly isn’t new, but we at RentAClassic, biased though we may be, believe the South Island to be one of the best places in the world to revive the art of driving for the sheer pleasure of the journey itself, to venture forth for the sake of venturing. Indeed some of our classic sports and convertible hire cars were designed and marketed as Grand Tourers, or GTs for short, as if expressly for the purpose of bringing so much more characterful and capable enjoyment to a self drive holiday, yet still having room for the essentials, such as a case or two of fine New Zealand wine….oh and the odd piece of luggage.

The Journey is the Reward

So the chapters you crave would speak of mountains and fjords, vineyards and meadows, seas and thermal pools, glaciers and caves, forests and lakes, beaches and national parks. Many countries have them, but what’s special about the South Island is the sheer calibre of their beauty, combined with their collective accessibility via the 5000km of well maintained state highways….with not a tedious motorway in sight. It would take in theory around 12 hours drive from Nelson at the top of the South Island to reach Invercargill at the bottom. However to do that in one rushed take would be an ill-advised travesty, especially when you have some of the most interesting drives in the Southern hemisphere.

The most appealing passages in our travel journal might describe verdant fertile valleys, gentle rolling hills, dramatic coastal expanses, snaking alpine passes. They’re all very well seen from a coach or train, but with the roof down in one of our convertibles it’s a more intimate, vibrant experience, almost like you can reach out and touch them, more sharing in the tableau rather than being a distant onlooker just passing through. Of course you can still see the same sights from the latest Group Dull 4 door sedan rental car, however as one of our venturers aptly described, “mountains were higher, valleys deeper, skies bluer, all because of the wonderful Saab convertible.” Heck, these cars can make even the few boring bits interesting.

The opportunity to relish in the freedom to choose your own itinerary, of not being tied to someone else’s timetable, to linger longer, to lose yourself, (we do offer the latest satellite navigation should that start to lose its appeal though). Combine that with the sun glinting off the bonnet, the wheel at your hands and the whole island at your right foot, anticipation mounting at the sense of escape and the possibilities on the open road. And believe us, the roads here are pretty open, with the amount of vehicles barely justifying the collective noun of ‘traffic’ that Europeans for example would endure, even in peak summer. And what fine touring roads await you. Epic straights, long sweeping curves, twisty S bends, dips, dives and crests, a positive smorgasbord of tasty driving delicacies. And rather than having to endure soulless service stations with cookie cutter canteens, here you refresh yourself at individual country cafes, or dine out at roadside restaurants with spectacular views, all serving up their unique combinations of fresh local produce.

A sample Grand Tour from Christchurch

So, let’s venture forth on a sample Grand Tour. Landing at Christchurch International Airport, we recommend you take at least a day to rest from a long haul flight and more to enjoy the rejuvenating city itself. Having collected your RentAClassic GT after a personal familiarisation session, and pinching yourself that you’re about to enjoy such a fine exclusive hire vehicle in the finest of countries, do you head north or south? Two weeks would allow a leisurely loop round the whole island, but with a week or less, the obvious route is to aim south to the main tourist hotspots. Magnificent though they are, let’s do something different and steer north instead along one of my personal favourites, taking the Christchurch to Nelson via Kaikoura coastal route as recommended by newzealand.com.

Apart from the many delights at the two main cities, and those in between such as the luxurious spas at Hanmer Springs, majestic whale watching at Kaikoura, and world class vineyards in Marlborough, there are many less obvious enjoyments along the way, especially for those who enjoy driving. Setting out north from Christchurch you traverse rolling valleys with rocky outcrops, with the mountains beckoning you onwards beyond. Weaving your way out of the hills at Oaro down towards Kaikoura, you begin to play criss-cross tag with the railway line that runs parallel to the road. The imposing rocky terrain brings the added benefit of a couple a short tunnels to play in, (worth taking our MG BGT, Alfa Spider V6 or Jaguar XK8 down there to hear those rasping exhaust notes alone).

The real delights though are the 40km stretches of coast road either side of Kaikoura that run alongside the Pacific Ocean, sometimes just a few metres away, with wonderful uninterrupted views. There’s even a nearby seal colony to stop and observe from a respectful distance, just below the road at Ohau. It’s a glorious unfolding panorama in good weather, especially if you’re driving in one of our convertibles, (and still pretty darn dramatic in bad weather, roof snugly up of course)!

The Perfect Antidote to Motorway Cafes

And now to let you in on one of our local secrets. It’s always good to take regular stops and whilst Kaikoura is the obvious place, I’d recommend stopping again 45 minutes later at The Store, Kekerengu, to stock up on the last sea view just before the road turns inland once more. In summer, dine outdoors on their wide Mediterranean style terrace overlooking the sea, lounge about in bean bags, or play croquet, and in the testier seasons, watch the dramatic breakers whilst sipping fresh hot coffee by the comfort of a roaring fire.

Or if you fancy something earlier en route that’s a little more basic but authentic kiwiana, try the Nins Bin cafe, well more of a shack really, serving very fresh crayfish, mussels and chips. And for the more sophisticated palettes, not too far beyond both of those you have the rolling vineyards of Marlborough country, with some very appealing places to rest and sup the night away.  Indeed the South Island boasts luxury lodges and boutique accommodation to rival the finest in the world, some with vistas and surroundings so extensive and private, you can’t quite believe you’re invited to stay there.

Make it your Grand Tour

For your touring pleasure, our classic sports and convertible GTs come in many shapes and sizes but as to the experience of a Grand Tour of the South Island, well we’ll let some journeymen and women who have gone before read from their tour comments they left us:

We had an awesome trip and the Jag was amazing, a true GT. I can’t recommend your service more highly.”

The Alfa was lively, responsive and corners beautifully, just point and go. What a wonderful drive…after 4 days, I just wanted to keep on going.”

What a car, have had a fantastic 3 days cruising through the spectacular South Isle. MG didn’t miss a beat. Would have loved to take it home with me!”

So what are you waiting for? Well our accompanying video gives a fleeting aerial glimpse of another coastal stretch near our Nelson base, but we recommend you read more than just a guide book. We believe our country, our roads and our cars will live up to the most expectant of Grand Tour expectations. And as with any good book, just make sure you relax, lose the distractions and take your time to savour…. “what a brilliant drivethe only way to see the South Island”.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines…..

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