Exploring New Zealand's South Island

I’ve been holding back on writing about New Zealand’s South Island, mostly because it was such an amazing experience that putting pen to paper just seemed daunting. But it is time to get this show on the road and share all the amazing things there are to do and see on the South Island.

If you only have 1 or 2 weeks in New Zealand, I might recommend skipping the North Island altogether. It is amazing, however, the South Island has more of the jaw dropping sites and experiences all in one place (and more national parks). If you have time for an extended stay, check out my guide to 5 days on the New Zealand’s North Island.

 

Day 1: Land in Queenstown

We flew into Queenstown at night from Auckland, sinking slowly below the cloud line (but able to still see the top of Mt. Cook and other high peaks on the West Coast!), and into the beautiful city of Queenstown. I had been warned that often the flights into Queenstown are cancelled or rerouted to a smaller town nearby because the flight path can be kind of dangerous, but luckily we had great weather and zipped right between the mountains and into the valley along Lake Wakatipu. We spent the night at the beautiful Queenstown Hilton on an inlet of the lake.

Views from the Hilton in Queenstown.

 

Day 2: Queenstown Prep and Routeburn Track

We headed early into Queenstown mostly to do some housekeeping: picking up our hiking permits for the Routeburn Track, picking up the lockbox for our car relocation service (EasyHike), and buying food for the hike. Queenstown is the most perfect touristy, adventure focused city anywhere I have been. Surrounded by beautiful mountains and lakeside views, filled with happy, tan and toned adventure seekers, if this place had any industry besides tourism I would move there in a heartbeat.

After stocking up, we drove the few hours to the start of the Routeburn Track, which followed a gorgeous narrow road that hugged the shore of Lake Wakatipu, with the mountains of Fiordland National Park coming closer and closer into view with every passing turn. I should add we booked a car with NZ Rent A Car - a little off the beaten path for a car rental service, but more affordable than the mainstream ones and they allowed for pick up and drop off in different parts of the country. Driving in New Zealand is not for the faint of heart! While most roads are pretty well maintained, they are quite narrow and shared with large trucks. Don’t forget, you will be driving on the opposite side of the road too.

The road along Lake Wakatipu, heading to the Routeburn Track.

 

We arrived at the car park for the start of the Routeburn, locked our car, crossed our fingers, and hoped our belongings wouldn’t be stolen and the car would be sitting in the car park on the other end of the hike in 3 days - 32km for us, 324km for the car! We hiked a few miles in to the campsite at Routeburn Flats.

The start of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand's most popular multi-day hikes.

 

Days 3 and 4: Routeburn Track

These days were spent on the trail on the Routeburn Track, one of the highlights of the trip. You can read more about the details of this hike in my post, The New Zealand Hiking List. At the end of day 4, we drove to Milford Sound - the “8th wonder of the world” for it’s rainfall and beautiful fjords. We stayed at the only real accommodation in town - The Milford Sound Lodge. This is also home to one of the only restaurants in Milford Sound, where we had amazing Kumara soup and Risotto balls.

Unending beauty on the Routeburn Track.

 

Day 5: Milford Sound

The thing to do in Milford Sound is to well, see the Sound! We booked a kayak and cruise through Southern Discoveries. Make sure you get to the car park early for this and also opt for a morning tour, since many buses come in all the way from Queenstown just for the day, and it is nice to beat the crowds. The day started on the cruise throughout the fjord, complete with waterfalls, watching rock climbers ascend the cliffs, and seals playing in the Sound. After, we enjoyed a short kayak excursion and even saw a penguin. I definitely recommend booking kayaking to get a more involved experience in the fjord.

The stars at night were incredible, as Milford Sound is very much cut off from traffic and any real light pollution.

Cruising and kayaking Milford Sound.

 

Day 6: Back to Queenstown

Seeing as we didn’t get to do much exploring in Queenstown, we headed back there (stopping briefly in Te Anau for delicious brunch!). Queenstown has a number of cute cobblestone like streets with great food and cute bars. We wandered around and then headed out to Kawarau Bridge, about 20 minutes outside of town, so I could try my hand at bungy jumping! I booked with AJ Hackett which is the highest regarded outfitter for bungy jumping. The jump at Kawarau is the place where bungy was invented, and it is 43 meters, or 141 feet tall. It was one of the most amazing feelings I have ever had and would recommend it to anyone!

Catching the wind beneath my wings... literally. Photo courtesy of A.J. Hackett.

 

After Bungy, we explored the small village of Arrowtown, which used to be an old mining community. We even saw people panning fold gold in the river! It had a quaint, pioneering vibe and was surrounded by vineyards (New Zealand has some of the best wine!) on the drive in. We had dinner at Arrow Thai then headed back to downtown Queenstown for epic ice cream at Patagonia Chocolates. We wandered the lakeside boardwalk, listening to local musicians and watching performers. We stopped into the amazing MacPac, which is like REI for New Zealand, and then grabbed a beer on a floating bar boat in the marina.

Left to right, top to bottom: Arrowtown, Ice Cream Parlor in Queenstown, Queenstown waterfront at night, Floating Bar in the Queenstown harbor.

 

Day 7: Quick stop in Wanaka and Mt. Aspiring National Parks

We headed out of Queenstown and north to Wanaka. Along the way, we stopped at Mrs. Jone’s incredible fruit stand and tried “real fruit ice cream”, a very New Zealand treat. We drove through Wanaka and on to Rob Roy Glacier, which was up a road that stopped being a road at the foot of Mt. Aspiring National Park. The road was pot-marked and unpaved the last 30 kilometers or so, with ford crossings. With nowhere else to go but up into the mountains, we hiked to the foot of the Glacier. Read more about the hike here.

A lot of people go to Wanaka for the “Wanaka Tree”, which is a tree in the middle of Lake Wanaka. You can read about the tree and more things worth knowing before you go on my post, 10 things to know about New Zealand before you go.

From left to right: Hiking Rob Roy's Glacier, "That Wanaka Tree".

 

Day 8: On to Mt. Cook National park

We awoke the next day and headed out of town towards Twizel, where we stopped to enjoy an all things salmon restaurant and farm. We drove around Lake Pukaki, where again, around every turn, the mountains of Mt. Cook National Park in the distance because larger and larger and more impressive. The mountains reflected off of the surreal beauty of Lake Pukaki’s emerald shores. We stopped by the visitor center, grabbed our hiking permits, and headed up to Mueller Hut for the night. Sleeping among the glaciers, and waking up to fresh snow in New Zealand’s summer sunrise, was one of the most refreshing (and cold!) experiences I have ever had. I wrote about that hike in more detail in this post.

From left to right, top to bottom: The drive along Lake Pukaki, views of Mt. Cook along the trail, Mueller hut at the top of the hike, views of the surrounding glaciers in the morning sun.

 

Day 9: Hike down from Mueller Hut & Enjoying Tekapo

After leaving the Mt. Cook recreation area, we drove on to Lake Tekapo where we checked out Tekapo Hot Springs for some post hike recovery, and explored around the shore of the lake, which similar to Lake Pukaki, is an eerie emerald blue. The main attractions in this area include the Church of the Good Shepherd and the night sky. Tekapo is a “dark sky reserve”, which means extra lengths are taken to avoid light pollution. We brought our sleeping bags out to a dark field and just lay out for awhile, but you can pay for tours and visits to the observatory in town if you want a more guided star experience. I actually thought the night sky was more impressive hiking the Routeburn, but if you can’t make it into the backcountry, Tekapo is a good alternative!

Church of the Good Shepherd in Tekapo. Not pictured: the many Chinese newlyweds posing for wedding photos at this scenic spot.

 

Day 10: To the West!

We drove from Lake Tekapo to Franz Josef glacier, which isn’t that far as the crow flies, but because enormous mountains of Mt. Cook and Mt. Aspiring National Parks are in the way, the journey takes all day. The road through Haast Pass was only resurfaced with asphalt back in 1995, and is one of the only arteries from central South Island to the West Coast, snaking between the Southern Alps. The ride is mostly through dense rainforest, before opening up on the West Coast and the Tasman Sea.

Finally emerging on the South Island's West Coast, featuring the Tasman Sea. If you squint really hard, you can see Australia! (Just kidding).

 

Day 11: To Glacier or not, that is the question

Our main goal in going all the way to Franz Josef was to take a helicopter flight and hike up on the glacier itself. Unfortunately, weather did not permit us to fly the morning we were booked, so instead we hiked to as close to the edge of the glacier as we could get. The hike was nice and there were many waterfalls everywhere. We then headed out to drive up the coast to the funky beach town of Hokitika, where we had the best pizza at Fat Pipi’s. I recommend if you are very eager to take a helicopter glacier tour, perhaps try it on multiple days as the weather can be so variable. You can fly to Tasman Glacier from the eastern side of the Alps and avoid the long drive as well.

The funky beach town of Hokitika, feature Burning Man -esk art all along the water.

 

We ended our long day in Arthur’s Pass where we stayed in an AirBnB in the middle of nowhere. The only thing around is the Bealey hotel, where we enjoyed some delicious dessert while the locals played pool and drank beer.

 

Day 12: Back to the City

On our last full day in New Zealand, we drove to Christchurch and explored its ruined streets and murals. Heavily damaged by the earthquakes of 2011 which flattened the main downtown area, a large portion of the city is under construction. Beautiful murals cover many of the walls surrounding the construction sites. Things to visit include the Tannery, walking around Center City, and visiting the Canterbury Earthquake Memorial along the river.

From left to right, top to bottom: Church destroyed by the earthquake in the center of town, Christchurch art, memorial art installation memorializing the dead from the quake, more mural art expressing social commentary on the extinction of New Zealand's birds.


New Zealand is an incredible place to spend a couple of weeks - it is a country filled with friendly, adventurous spirited people, who hold their land close to their hearts. There is delicious food, beauty everywhere, and if you like a good hike, there are many to be found. This place is on my list of favorite countries to visit of all time. Add it to yours soon!