New Zealand's South Island is what I think of when I hear the term "God's country". Soaring snow-capped mountains slash at blankets of thick cloud; mammoth lakes sparkle like liquid silver; and deep green valleys weave their way through the dramatic landscape.
And sheep are almost always included in these scenes – there are more than 27 million sheep in New Zealand according to the last count. To put this in perspective, New Zealand's population is just over 4.75 million.
Right now, however, my husband and I are keeping our eyes peeled for yellow-eyed penguins, or, their Maori name hoihos. This endangered penguin species is only found on the Eastern and Southern coasts of New Zealand's South Island, and here on the Otago Peninsula a tour with Penguin Place offers one of the best chances of seeing them in the wild. We're part of a group of eight, slowly walking through trench-like tunnels and peeking through holes trying to spot a cute critter or two.
A couple of the rare penguins are sighted about an hour into the tour, one warming an egg in its cosy nest and another resting on nearby a rock. During the two-hour outing we also see seals basking in the warm sun and our guide tells us that this is probably one of a few spots in the world where you can observe seals and sheep sunning themselves side by side. "I've seen seals up on the mountains and sheep by the shoreline," he laughs. "That's New Zealand for you."
That night, while dining at Lanarch Castle, I learn that the peninsula is also home to the only mainland breeding colony of albatross in the world. I'm not sure what impresses me more, this information or the fact that I'm sitting around a colossal table in a lavish ballroom inside New Zealand's only castle. And we get to sleep here, too.
The dinner-in-the-castle experience is reserved for guests staying in the castle grounds, with three types of accommodation available. We're staying in the one of the lodge rooms which all have spectacular views of the Otago Harbour and Peninsula.
Lanarch Castle and the nearby Otago Peninsula are just two of many stops on our self-drive tour from Queenstown to Christchurch, a trip that sees us traverse hundreds of kilometres over eight days.
More than 70 per cent of Australians self-drive when visiting New Zealand, so in a way we are following the masses, yet we never feel like we are part of a crowd. Sometimes we share the road with a few others, while other times we feel quite solitary. Bliss.
The Catlins, perhaps New Zealand's most underrated patch of paradise, is an area on the south-east tip of the island. Here roads weave their way past grass-carpeted fields filled with grazing sheep, making for perfect photos that typify New Zealand.
There's also a rugged coastline, home to the fascinating Curio Bay, a coastal embayment with a petrified forest dating back to the Jurassic period. We spend a couple of hours here, first visiting Tumu Toka Curioscape, an information centre with interactive touch screens and an immersive theatre, along with a cafe and giftshop. We then stroll along the coastal cliffs and beach, looking for penguins and petrified wood.
Further inland, lush rainforests and teeming waterfalls create a different mood. McLean Falls and Purakaunui Falls are two of the best known cascades and we make time to visit both.
We spend the night at Catlins Mohua Park and if we didn't have anywhere else to be, we'd stay a lifetime. Four cottages are dispersed across a large acreage with bushwalking trails and personalised eco tours conducted by owner-hosts Gill and Lyndon. Check-in here is a casual "hello" and then it's up to you whether you want human interaction (Gill and Lyndon can cook up a storm for guests to enjoy together) or quiet time to soak up the surrounds. We have our own supplies and once we're settled in it's just us, the picturesque hills and loads of sheep. Our daughter is making "baa baa" noises by morning.
Driving from one point to another I realise that what makes this road trip remarkable is the diverse variety of experiences on offer. If you want to ramp up the adrenalin and be hurled off a cliff, New Zealand is your kind of fun. But if you simply want to drive around stopping for coffee, hokey pokey ice-cream and fabulous views, New Zealand is the place for that, too.
You can easily do both. Our two days in Queenstown includes gondola rides and breathtaking views, a relaxing cruise, too much ice-cream (Patagonia Chocolates, I'd be in trouble if you had a shopfront in Sydney) and an almost near-terrifying experience that is the Nevis Catapult. I was all kitted up and ready to soar, but due to wind conditions my jump was cancelled. We went to Fergburger instead for arguably the best burgers in the country.
Another highlight of our road trip holiday is how little distance we have to drive to get from one destination to another as there is plenty to see in close proximity. We average two to three hours' driving a day, taking our time enjoying the scenery along the way and each place we stop in at. There is a tendency to want to fit everything in, to cram in the sights, but as seasoned travellers we've learnt that seeing less is actually seeing more.
Our biggest drive day is a return trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound. With stops, it's more than three hours each way, but it's well worth it. Long drives on windy roads often lull me to sleep, but there was no way I was missing out on even a minute of these implausibly beautiful views.
I don't think I've ever fought sleep as much as I did while seated in the passenger seat that day, but New Zealand is one destination you don't want to miss a second of.
FIVE OTHER PLACES TO VISIT ON THE SOUTH ISLAND
New Zealand is home to an abundance of natural hot springs and those located in the alpine town of Hanmer Springs are well worth a visit. Kick back in a hot pool (sulphur pools, water jets and rock pools to name a few options) surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Truly spectacular.
FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER
Franz Josef Glacier is one of the country's most interesting glaciers – New Zealand is home to thousands – due to its unique glacial environment, a place where ice, rainforest and the Waiho River all meet.
New Zealand's highest mountain, at 3754 metres, is the star of its namesake national park. There are 19 other mountains rising more than 3000 metres in the park, so walkers and climbers have plenty of choice. Aoraki/Mount Cook Village is located within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve which makes for some of the best stargazing in the world.
More than 85 per cent of New Zealand's third largest island, located 30 kilometres south of the South Island, is national park, so it's no surprise hikers and wildlife enthusiasts, particularly birdwatchers, flock here.
The largest wine region in New Zealand is best known for its sauvignon blanc, with the white variety accounting for about 80 per cent of the wine produced here. With more than 30 cellar doors in close proximity wine lovers will be busy.
Tatyana Leonov was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.
Air New Zealand flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to various cities on New Zealand's South Island. See airnewzealand.com.au
Lanarch Castle's lodge rooms have views of Otago Harbour; in The Catlins, Catlins Mohua Park is the place to get away from the hustle and bustle; in Queenstown, Novotel Queenstown Lakeside sits right on the lakefront and close to the centre of town; Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park is a good option for those travelling to Milford Sound. See larnachcastle.co.nz; catlinsmohuapark.co.nz; accorhotels.com; teanauholidaypark.co.nz
See also: New Zealand's untouched 'third island'