On arrival in Christchurch, gateway to New Zealand's rugged South Island, your local guide meets you at the airport and accompanies you on the transfer to your contemporary boutique hotel overlooking historic Cramner Square. Christchurch is known as the Garden City, and after a leisurely morning, your excursion begins with an afternoon tour of this small urban enclave. Situated on the Avon River, Christchurch is marked by its Gothic Revival buildings dating back to the settlement’s 1856 founding. You’ll also visit the International Antarctic Center, an award-winning interactive encounter with the ice, wildlife and the wonders of the Frozen Continent—the closest you’ll get to Antarctica without mounting your own expedition.
Day 2: Christchurch / Akaroa
A scenic morning drive takes you 90 minutes southeast of Christchurch to Akaroa, a historic French and British village nestled in the heart of an ancient extinct volcano. Akaroa means “long harbor” in Maori, and the colonial architecture along the sparkling
Later in the day, we set out on a scenic 4x4 adventure traveling over one of the highest passes on the Banks Peninsula. Look over the ancient crater rim of Akaroa Volcano and peer into the watery distance for breaching dolphins and whales before dropping down to sheer costal cliffs along the Pacific Ocean and the Pohatu Marine Reserve. Birdlife is abundant, including a chance to see petrel and tree weta, and you’ll learn about penguin, lizard and insect conservation projects along the way. At Pohatu Bay, visit a working sheep ranch, then walk through the red beech forest at Tutakakahikura Scenic Bush Reserve, which also harbors five different kinds of tree ferns. A final stop at Akaroa Head Reserve and lighthouse offers more dramatic views. We'll spend the night in the elegant and charming atmosphere of the 1878 Beaufort House, overlooking the bay in Akaroa.
Day 3: Akaroa / Oamaru
This morning, head south along the coast to explore the Oamaru region’s natural, cultural and architectural wonders. At Moeraki village, where the enormous 60-million-year-old Moeraki Boulders lie just off shore, lunch is served at the famous Fleurs Place seafood restaurant. If the tide is right, you’ll be able to see the striking spherical boulders before taking a walk through a yellow-eyed penguin colony. Yellow-eyed penguins, with their distinct bright iris and golden crown, are the largest penguins breeding in New Zealand, a vulnerable species that straggled north from the subantarctic after the region’s large marine mammals were over-harvested.
The town of Oamaru is famous for its Whitestone Victorian architecture, New Zealand’s oldest public gardens and a lively and imaginative Steampunk culture. If time permits, you’ll visit the gardens and tour the Victorian Precinct, where limestone buildings were mostly grain and seed warehouses through the late 1800s and have since been preserved as shops, galleries and restaurants. This evening, settle in at the Pen-y-bryn Lodge, an 1889 residence transformed into an inn offering Old World elegance with modern amenities. The lodge sits at the top of South Hill, one of Oamaru’s most desirable locations.
Day 4: Oamaru / Dunedin
Visit Katiki Point this morning, a destination steeped in ecological, historical and spiritual significance at the southernmost tip of the Moerakai Peninsula. It is home to a plethora for birdlife including yellow-eyed penguins, little blue penguins, diving petrel, spotted shag, white-fronted tern and the variable oystercatcher. We might encounter the resident fur seal colony as well. Afterward, we'll make a guided exploration of the Orokonui Sanctuary in search of takahe, tuatara, Otago skink, kaka, bellbirds and tui that dwell within more than 750 acres of native New Zealand coastal Otago forest. This eco-sanctuary is an active biodiversity restoration project surrounded by a fence that keeps out non-native predators and enables the reintroduction of rare and endangered species that are indigenous to the Orokonui Valley. Return to Dunedin in time to join your fellow travelers for the start of your New Zealand Nature Explorer adventure.