September 28, 2019

- The best places to see in New Zealand's South Island -

Last year I hopped across the pond from Sydney to New Zealand for the first time. Lots of planning went into this trip and almost nothing happened how it was planned. But I wouldn’t change a thing.

We had a couple of restrictions when booking our trip to the Land of the long white cloud.

  • First: we had to go in December - January time.
  • Second: we couldn’t go for more than 2 weeks.

I love to fly into a place and just go with the flow, letting the universe take me where it wants to go. For this trip, that wasn’t possible. But I found that sometimes limits can force you out of your comfort zone, too. We had to be meticulous with timings and only pick the best of the best experiences. It was a trip full of highlights without actually knowing what the highlights were. New Zealand exceeded our expectations and more.

Also, there is no way to see both the South Island and North Island in two weeks, which we originally planned to do. I asked everyone which Island was better and everyone had a different answer. But the general consensus was that the South Island had more untouched, naturally epic sceneries and was the best for hiking and feeling the freedom. We couldn’t say no to that.

Below I’ll list our itinerary for our 2 week trip of NZ's South Island with suggestions on how to extend the trip if you have a little more time up your sleeve.

Day 1: Christchurch

Flying into Christchurch from Sydney took about 4 hours. There’s the option of also flying straight into Queenstown, but it doesn’t save much time to justify the extra cost.

To start, I highly recommend hiring a campervan. There’s plenty of options around as New Zealand doesn’t have great intercity transport, so they expect pretty much all tourists to hire either a car, van or full on house on wheels. We opted for a van, with a bed and small kitchen in the back.

Secondly, if you need it, is a SIM card. Vodafone had the best deal we could find for travellers. You can pick up a SIM at the airport in Duty Free for about $90 and you get 10GB data plus limited talk and text.

After picking up the van and our SIM, we grabbed some groceries and headed out of Christchurch, on our way to Lake Tekapo to spend the first night.

We were immediately struck by how beautiful the scenery was, even just a short drive out of the city. There were mountains popping up on the horizon, beautiful fields and greenery everywhere! We stopped in a small town on the way to switch drivers and grab fish and chips for dinner. One of the best fish and chips I’ve had - no exaggeration.

We arrived in Lake Tekapo after dark (due to an accident on the highway, we had to go the long way around) and checked into the holiday park. It’s right on the lakefront and close enough to town so you can take a small self-guided tour before settling in.

We booked the Mt John Observatory tour through Earth & Sky Observatory (now known as the Dark Sky Project) for that night. Tekapo is under a dark sky reserve, meaning light pollution is strictly controlled. It is the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, and one of only eight in the world.

Unfortunately, this was one of the first things that didn’t go as planned. After waiting up until midnight, we arrived at the tour office only to find it was too cloudy to see anything and the tour had been cancelled. Thankfully they refunded us without trouble and we headed to bed for our first night in New Zealand.

Day 2: Lake Tekapo & Aoraki/Mount Cook

Waking up late on the second day, we wandered around Lake Tekapo village stopping for coffee and breakfast in the Creedy Cow. Prices here are comparable to Australian prices - about $30-40 for coffee and small breakfast for two.

There’s a few places of interest around the area if you want to wander around after a meal.

Church of the Good Shepherd

A beautiful, small stone chapel located just as you drive into town from the East. It overlooks Lake Tekapo and it’s interdenominational, which I love. It's popular for weddings, and anyone is welcome to walk around.

Tekapo Springs

Just past the Holiday park is Tekapo Springs, perfect summer or winter for some relaxation overlooking the Lake in hot and cool pools. There are many hot springs scattered around New Zealand, some natural and some man made. These are man made springs, but worth the trip if you have time. They also do a guided hot pool and star gazing tour at night.

We only opted for a short walk around part of the lake - the full lake is bigger than you think! - took some photos with the lupin flowers and looked around the Church before heading off to Mount Cook.

Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo
Church of the Good Shepherd - Lake Tekapo

There aren’t any supermarkets in Mount Cook, only consisting of a small accommodation village, the museum, the campsite and a whole bunch of walking tracks. So before heading to Mount Cook, make sure you pick up anything you might need, including:

  • Petrol
  • Food & drinks
  • Supplies

The main campsite is the White Horse Hill Campground. It’s located at the base of the Hooker Valley Track, the most famous track that leads to Mount Cook. To get a spot, you’ll need to arrive early - it fills up pretty fast. There's a kitchen area and bathrooms but no showers, so be prepared.

Day 3: Aoraki/Mount Cook

The Hooker Valley Track is popular. It will take about 3 hours from the campsite. The walk is beautiful, crossing 2 swing bridges over the river and even passing by some small waterfalls if you go after fresh rain. The bridges are a great photo op, if you can get them to yourself. The big reveal at the end is breathtaking. There is a blue lake, complete with icebergs, with Mount Cook rising up behind. There’s also a picnic area, so take some snacks or have lunch there before heading back to camp.

We couldn't stay long at the viewing area, as despite clear and warm weather on the way in, a summer storm quickly rolled in. All of a sudden, it was cold, wet and icy. It was bad. Luckily we took some raincoats with us as we were previously warned about the weather having the ability to turn at a moment’s notice. When we reached camp again, the rain had slowed but the damage was done - we were soaked through and freezing. With no showers, we put on fresh clothes and bundled up in the car with the heating on until it was time to come out for food.

All I can say is, please pack for all weather conditions when visiting New Zealand - even in the summer. Even if the sun is out, it can still get quite chilly. I found layering is the best way to go.

Hooker Valley Track leading to Aoraki/Mount Cook
Walking the Hooker Valley Track

Day 4-7: Queenstown

We packed up our camp early the next morning and drove out with beautiful, sunny skies and great views of Mount Cook along the road.

On the way to Queenstown, we stopped in Arrowtown for a little wander around. Splurge a little and grab some fine wine and local produce before heading onto Queenstown.

There is so much to do in Queenstown. It’s the adventure capital of New Zealand, perhaps even the world. There’s people from all walks of life, all ages and all backgrounds coming together in one town. And it is beautiful.

We chose to stay at Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park. It's central to everything, especially close to the Skyline and gondola, and relatively cheap. The views of sunset over the lake can't be beat.

There are so many experience booking offices, so there will be no trouble finding something to keep you occupied. We opted for booking our tours and experiences beforehand, through - they have last minute deals for some of the best experiences. For our budget and timeframe, this worked perfectly for us.

We opted for a jet boat ride along the shotover river. We also chose to do the ice bar experience - where everything (and I mean everything) is made of ice - the giant zipline and a wine tour. We considered also signing up for the giant swing/bungee, but chickened out at the last minute. I don’t think I’m quite ready for that leap just yet.

But hands down, the best view you’re going to get over Queenstown is the skyline - a gondola taking you up through Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve. They have a BMX track, ziplining, bungee jumping and luge rides. On the way down, stop at the Stratosfare Restaurant for some dinner, and watch the sunset over the lake and mountains, but get there early as the good tables start filling up about 6.30pm.

Cocktails overlooking a view of Queenstown
Cocktails at Stratosfare Restaurant with views of Queenstown

Overall, we stayed four days here, but could stay longer and still not get bored. There’s plenty of restaurants, bars, walks and more to do around the area and everyone is super friendly.

Hint: a great insta worthy location is the Basket of Dreams - found on the hike up Queenstown Hill.

Day 8-9: Te Anau & Milford Sound

Te Anau is a 2 hour drive south of Queenstown and is known as the gateway to Milford Sound. Book a cruise and either drive yourself through the national park or pick a cruise that comes with a coach transfer. We chose the coach, but if I did it again I would choose to drive ourselves - the park itself seemed to be full of great mini adventures and beautiful views that I would have loved to stop and explore a bit more.

Milford Sound itself is like nothing else in the world. Rain or shine, all weathers have their pros. With clear skies you can see the epic, rising cliffs as you travel out to the Tasman Sea and back. In rain, you get amazing waterfalls left, right and centre. Some cruises even take you right up to them, letting the pounding water literally smack you in the face. So exhilarating. There’s also seals, birds and if you’re lucky, dolphins.

Waterfalls along the way to Milford Sound
Recent rain made waterfalls appear everywhere on the way to Milford Sound

Back in Te Anau, the glowworm cave tour is a must. They sail you across the lake from the small village, over to the other side where you squeeze through a tiny entrance to reveal caverns lit up with the glowworms.

If you’d rather just take it easy, you can take the Kepler track walk. The first part of this trek is an easy stroll, but starts getting into more of a hike the further you go

Day 10: Lake Wanaka

Driving back up through Queenstown again and up to Lake Wanaka, we stopped at the Cardrona Bra Fence on our way through. As you can guess, it is completely covered in bras, donated by women from all over the world in support of Breast Cancer awareness. If you have a chance, please donate at the box located next to the fence.

Once at Wanaka, you can’t not go to The Wanaka Tree. It is probably the most photographed tree in the world. Take some snaps, have a picnic on the lakeside beach, enjoy the view. The super blue lake coupled with the mountain range in the distance is a view you just can’t pass up.

You can also choose to stay here and hike Roy’s Peak. It’s a full day hike and at the top will take in all of Lake Wanaka and surrounds, an experience we unfortunately had to pass up in favour of saving time.

Blue Pools Track
The Blue Pools track - yes the water is that blue!

We instead opted to stay at a campground just north of the town, on the way to Franz Josef Glacier. The campgrounds in New Zealand are well maintained, safe and cheap - most of them only $8pp per night. We stayed at Cameron’s Flat Campground, which has the added bonus of being within walking distance of the famous Blue Pools track. It was a short, easy walk down to a suspended bridge and a waterfall flowing over a pebble beach and crystal clear river.

Cameron's Flat Campsite, New Zealand
Cameron's Flat Campsite

Day 11-12: Franz Josef Glacier

After packing up our camp in the morning, we headed to Franz Josef. It was a longer drive than previous days, but there were plenty of opportunities to stop along the way. First was Fantail Falls. It’s located just off the highway and will take a few minutes to walk to the clearing. People have made lots of rock stacks all over the river bed, creating a beautiful frame for the falls on the other side.

Further along, the highway turns to follow the coastline, offering spectacular views of the ocean all along the stretch of road. There’s plenty of places to stop for photo ops and more.

It’s amazing how the landscape can change so drastically - moving from mountains and dramatic cliff sides, to rainforest canopies enveloping you as you drive along the west coast. Mt Aspiring national park is so beautiful. We even were lucky enough to see a Pukeko, a native bird of NZ.

Franz Josef is a cute village nestled amongst stunning scenery and one of the best ways to see it is from the air. We had booked Helicopter Line with a heli-hike, which is a helicopter ride up to Franz Josef Glacier where you do a guided walk through some of the amazing structures formed by the ice. They also do trips to the Fox Glacier.

We almost missed this opportunity, since the weather turned bad and our booked time got cancelled due to low hanging clouds. Luckily, Helicopter Line managed to get us on the next cleared flight - the day was saved. It was an unforgettable experience and the highlight of our trip. The whole experience lasts about 3 hours before you head back down. It’s hard to explain without actually seeing it for yourself. Definitely a bucket list item to cross off the list.

HeliHike at Franz Josef Glacier
The Helicopter Line - HeliHike at Franz Josef Glacier

After the hike, give the hot pools a visit. We chose a private pool, which has a private shower and change area with it. The pool is nestled amongst the forest and is the perfect place for some quality time and tranquility to relax and recharge. You get the whole pool to yourselves for an hour and really saved us after the cold and wet weather the previous day had brung us.

We also chose to stay in an Airbnb, after over a week in the van. Our whole time at Franz Josef left us feeling like brand new people - refreshed, happy and ready to finish our trip. We headed to Arthurs Pass to stay at Avalanche Creek Shelter for the night, a campground right in the middle of town. There were no showers, but we did find a communal shower in town that you can use for a small fee.

Overlooking a firepit at a restaurant in Franz Josef Glacier
A much needed rest in Franz Josef

Day 13: Arthur’s Pass & Castle Hill

This was the longest driving day we had done so far. We got up early in the morning to do a small hike up to Devils Punchbowl Waterfall. A short 30 minute hike with a lot of stairs but a beautiful, roaring waterfall at the end.

After the hike, we headed to Kura Tawhiti/Castle Hill, a natural rock formation found on the way to Kaikoura. We stopped for lunch, taking a picnic up to the track that is overlooking the area. It felt quite spiritual and a great spot to just soak up the atmosphere amongst the amazing limestone boulders that form the hill.

Kura Tawhiti Conservation area / Castle Hill, New Zealand
Kura Tawhiti Conservation area / Castle Hill

But, the night I had been looking forward to most was coming up tonight! Before the trip I had heard about the Purepods located around New Zealand. They are small cabins made completely of glass, promoting sustainability and minimalist luxury. You feel like you are immersed in the landscape, being able to both watch the stars above you and the flowers growing beneath your feet all while snuggled up in the comfy warm bed. But don’t worry about privacy - there was not another person in sight for as far as the eye could see. Watch out for the sheep and cattle though, as the one we stayed in near Kaikoura was set up on farmland. It was a truly magical and unique experience and would definitely recommend to anyone going to New Zealand. If you want to learn more about the Purepods, how to stay there and what it's all about, I have another blog post on this exact topic. You won't regret it.

While around Kaikoura, we would have loved to do the Ohau Waterfall walk with the Kaikoura Seal Colony, but unfortunately the area was closed due to the recent earthquakes that caused the coastline around there to be unstable. Ohau Waterfall is famous for seeing baby seals up close and will be on our list for our next visit.

We instead opted for Kaikoura Kayaks, another way to see the seal colonies and even some dolphins if you’re lucky. They take you out from the main town and approach the waterfall area from the sea.

Due to the closure of the coast, we also had to miss out on heading further north up to Nelson and surrounds - famous for their wine, nature walks and biking. You can add this area onto your trip but because of its isolation from other areas of the South Island, I would recommend making the most of it and add a few days onto your timeline when you go up. There’s a few things we would have loved to see:

  • Marlborough wine region
  • Abel Tasman national park
  • Rabbit island
  • The gardens and more

Day 14-15: Christchurch

I know, I said that this itinerary was for two weeks, but I added an extra day because you will need it to see some more of the beautiful city that is Christchurch.

Despite it being a small, quiet city it has so much to offer. We stayed at the Chateau on the Park, a Double-Tree by Hilton, which I would recommend but I also would stay somewhere a bit closer to the city next time. Although, the walk through the botanic gardens to the city was beautiful. They even have gondola rides up and down the beautiful river in the gardens.

After arriving, we took a wander through the Re:Start container mall. The earthquake I mentioned earlier hit hard for Christchurch, killing 185 people, injuring many more and causing severe damage to the city. The Re:Start container mall was a great example of the New Zealander resilience. Originally meant to be a temporary structure, it was so popular it remained open until early 2019.

There is also a great restaurant scene - check out Little High Eatery and especially Bacon Bros, an infamous burger joint and popular with locals and tourists alike. There is also awesome graffiti art dotted around the city and some memorials for the tragic history of the area. So just wander around and take it all in.

One installation is the 185 White Chairs. Each chair represents an individual who died during the 2011 earthquake. It’s a powerful reminder and really hits home the extent of it all. Right next door is the Cardboard Cathedral. It was also meant to only be a temporary solution to the old church’s destruction, but became a permanent fixture due to its popularity.

An art mural in Christchurch, New Zealand, saying 'We got the sunshine'
Christchurch has so many great art murals

That brings an end to our trip to South Island, New Zealand. On the way out, if you have time, also check out the International Antarctic Centre. It’s located within walking distance of the airport and have storage for your luggage so you can pop over if you have time to kill before your flight. They have a Antarctic storm simulator room, Hagglan rides, huskies, and penguins. We spent an hour or so here and it wasn’t enough!

It was a sad moment to leave New Zealand. It was like nothing else in the world. But I will be back. Perhaps even in the winter, when the mountain ranges are covered in snow, and we can experience a completely different side to this amazing country.

Have you been to New Zealand’s South Island? What experiences would you recommend?

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