New Zealand South Island Travel Guide
In October I ventured to the South Island of New Zealand for an incredible ten day adventure through the best parts of the island. Since returning, I can easily say that New Zealand certainly holds a special place in my heart now, not only because I was conceived there (so my parents so brazenly informed me), but because it’s a special little corner of our Earth that has a mysterious way of calming the soul and mind.
South Island in 10 Days
I’ve mapped out a solid 10 day route in the map below, with markers for all the must see places I had recommended to me by friends and locals. Feel free to use this map for your visit to the South Island. We concentrated mainly on the Southern half of the country as we mostly wanted to be among the soaring mountains.
Day 1: Christchurch to Lake Pukaki
We picked up our motorhome first thing in the morning from McRent, then stocked up on groceries before heading off on the road. From Christchurch we headed past Lake Tekapo to stay the night at an alpine lake: Lake Pukaki, which was the most beautiful spot we camped in all trip. You wouldn’t believe the gorgeous turquoise color of Lake Pukaki, which is caused by finely ground rock particles flowing into the lake from the glaciers. It’s pretty spectacular.
Day 2: Mount Cook
The Hooker Valley Track is a must do when in the Mount Cook / Aoraki area. The 3 hour walk leads you along the Hooker valley by the Hooker river, ending at a spectacular glacier lake surrounded by rugged mountains and gorgeous views of Mount Cook. It’s a super picturesque walk and as you pass the three long suspension bridges over the valley, you’ll be reaching for your camera at every turn.
Day 3: Wanaka
A 2.5 hour drive south west will place you in Wanaka, a popular resort town in both summer and the winter ski season. Situated comfortably at the southern end of Lake Wanaka, this little town is bursting with activities, hikes, culinary surprises and all-round good vibes.
Rob Roy Glacier Hike / Roy’s Peak
Unfortunately, we had the great displeasure in finding out that both Rob Roy Glacier Hike and Roy’s Peak were closed due to track work. Even though I didn’t see it for myself, both hikes were highly recommended to me by a number of people. The Glacier Hike is an easy grade 10km hike around the alpine zone at the foot of Mount Rob Roy, while Roy’s Peak hike is quite a challenging 16km hike with a 1.3km incline, ending at the very stunning Roy’s Peak summit.
The insta-famous Wanaka tree can be found a short walk along the lake from Wanaka’s main center. As the hashtag suggests, the tree has made insta-famous due to its isolated location on Lake Wanaka. Just a lonely tree all by itself, waiting to be photographed by the masses.
Immerse yourself in a sea of lavender at the Lavender Farm in Wanaka. Just a couple of minutes drive from Wanaka, the small entry fee will give you access to the farm grounds, where you can walk through the purple fields, get to know the resident farm animals and sample a range of goods made on site; lavender ice cream, honey, soaps and oils.
Must eat: KIKA
A visit to Wanaka is certainly not complete without dining at KIKA, just ask Gordon Ramsey. Every single dish on the menu has been crafted and cooked to perfection by the talent in the kitchen. Focusing on fresh, seasonal produce only, each ingredient on the plate has its purpose and marries blissfully with its accompanying ingredients. Food here is best enjoyed with a group of people, typical when dining at a tapas-style modern Italian restaurant. Make sure you dine on the “Just Feed Me” menu and surrender your taste buds to the geniuses in the kitchen. Service is warm, staff are knowledgeable, prices are reasonable – you have every reason to check it out.
Day 4, 5: Queenstown
Beautiful Queenstown boasts European alpine village vibes, a big foodie scene, and an endless list of heart pumping adventure activities to make your knees weak. The city has seen massive growth over the past few years to accommodate the huge influx of tourists flocking to the city for adventure activities and surrounding ski slopes. As Queenstown sits comfortably on the Queenstown Bay inlet by Lake Wakatipu, you have scenery of soaring mountains in literally every direction you look: The Remarkables, Cecil Peak, Walter Peak and right above you, Ben Lomond and Queenstown Hill.
Skyline Gondola / Ben Lomond Track
When in Queenstown, be sure to take a trip up the Skyline Gondola and experience the steepest cable car in the Southern Hemisphere. Once up there, you have a huge choice of activities such as paragliding, bungy jumping, luge racing or kilometers of mountain bike and walking tracks up the mountain. We opted to walk the steep Ben Lomond Track, but due to the copious amounts or slippery mud, we only made it half way. Still enjoyed a breathtaking view though =)
Bungy, Zip, Swing or Catapult
If you fancy a bit of adrenalin pumping, a short drive from Queenstown lands you at the famous Kawarau Bridge Bungy. The AJ Hackett company offers an epic bungy jump, where you plunge yourself into a valley of turquoise glacier water. They also offer a giant swing, zipride and catapult if you’re feeling brave.
Jet Boating with GoOrange
Make sure you add a 30 min or 1hr jet boat with Go Orange around the Kawarau river when in Queenstown. You’ll speed down the Kawarau river and dart across the Shotover River with your driver packing in plenty of their famous 360 degree spins.
If your wallet allows – don’t forget to explore South Island from the sky by jumping on a seaplane or helicopter!
Day 6: Doubtful Sounds
Both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are located within the spectacular Fiordland National Park. The foot of Milford Sound is accessible by road and draws a much larger crowd because of this. We decided to spend a whole day exploring the virtually untouched and less visited Doubtful Sound. The Real Journeys Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise was our number one pick as their staff and crew are the most knowledgable about the wild landscape. Real Journeys have been offering this tour since the 60’s; before there was a road connecting Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound, meaning tourists had to make the journey by foot.
The day starts with a two hour coach ride from Queenstown to Lake Manapouri. As there is no direct access to Doubtful Sound, the only way to get there is via a 50min boat across Lake Manapouri, followed by a drive over the Wilmot Pass – NZ’s most expensive and majestic road ever built, averaging about $ 2 a centimeter! Once you get off the bus, you’re warmly greeted by the amazing crew and hop on the super comfortable Patea Explorer catamaran for a 3-hour cruise through Doubtful Sound. As you cruise in the direction of the Tasman Sea, you’ll be in awe of the mighty waterfalls to your left and right. Make sure you keep an eye out for penguins, dolphins and seals! We were lucky enough to see a family of playful seals perched on big rock. But in my opinion, the best thing about the majestic Doubtful Sound .. is the silence.
Fun fact! Doubtful Sounds was originally scouted as the film location for the original Jurassic Park, but after two weeks of terrible weather, the crew packed up and left and went to Hawaii – where the weather is more predictable.
Day 7: Blue Pools, Mount Aspiring National Park and beyond
Day 7 was our biggest driving stretch as we started in Queenstown and slowly made our way to the West Coast. We stopped in at Arrow Town, an old gold mining town on our way out for a 10/10 homemade carrot cake at Postmasters Restaurant. As you move along, enjoy the scenery as you drive through the stunning Mount Aspiring National Park. Don’t forget to stop in at the Blue Pools. It’s just a short walk to the crystal clear waters of the valley over two suspension bridges.
The reason we ventured all the way to the west coast is because we had pre-booked a helicopter and glacier hike at Franz Josef Glacier. To our immense disappointment, the rain which had been holding off for the past week had decided to drench the west coast on those few days, meaning our very much anticipated heli-hike tour had been canceled. I would go back in a heartbeat to do it, so make sure you don’t miss out on some glacier fun while you’re there.
A few hours drive up the road will lead you to Hokitika Gorge which glistens with incredibly blue water. It’s said that the unusual water color is attributed to the very finely ground mineral-rich schist rock and sandstone that remains suspended in the water as it flows down from the southern alps through the gorge.
Day 8: Arthurs Pass
If you’re going to be traveling from West to East and vice versa, Arthurs Pass is the road to take. As you pass through, you will climb more than 900 meters through the National Park – the highest and most spectacular pass across the Southern Alps. There are also plenty of free camping spots if you are in a self contained unit, so you can park up for the night and wake up in the most stunning scenery.
Day 9 & 10: Akaora
Escaping the wet West coast, we made the journey to the island’s East to the cutest little French town: Akaroa. A quaint little town which is home to the extremely rare Hector’s Dolphins. There are a number of companies that offer ‘swim with the dolphins’ boat tours, or if you’d prefer to stay away from the crowds, hiring a kayak and cruising around yourself for the day is also a great option. Akaroa has a rich history of early French colonization and the remaining locals do a fantastic job at preserving their French roots. Here you will find a relaxed and slow paced vibe as you wander through the streets (of what could be a Parisian neighborhood) which are mostly all named in French. Within the area you also have access to beautiful beaches, walks, farmland, wineries and a cheese factory.
Must Eat: Murphy’s On The Corner
We saw two fisherman come off the pier in Akaroa carrying buckets of beautiful fresh fish through the small shopping streets. Keen for some fresh seafood, we followed them and ended up at Murphy’s On The Corner; a little no-frills corner shop that was bursting with satisfied patrons. Intrigue getting the better of us, we ordered some grilled salmon and oh my goodness .. it was the most perfectly cooked, freshest piece of salmon I’ve had in my 27 years. Murphy’s On The Corner has a few tables inside and outside, but most people are there for takeaway. Definitely worth checking out for an easy lunch or dinner.
Growing up in Australia, New Zealand was always that destination that was so close to home that you’d keep putting it off; opting for a month in Europe instead. However since visiting, I can definitely say it is a place I will come back to time and time again. South Island is amazing in both winter and summer seasons, so you have no reason to miss this gorgeous country if you’re venturing to this side of the world. Have you visited New Zealand? Comment below and let me know what your favorite spot was!