Top Tips for Seeing the South Island of New Zealand in One Week

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you might remember that my husband Alex likes to plan surprise trips and I love to be the recipient! Last time he planned an international surprise trip, we went to Aruba. So imagine my surprise when we got to Los Angeles and I found out that we were going to NEW ZEALAND.

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Truth be told, I had a hunch that New Zealand might be the final destination. I knew that we were going somewhere “very far” for just a week and he had let it slip that we’d be flying through LA, which I suspected meant we were going somewhere in the vicinity of Asia or Oceania. What really helped me narrow it down was when Alex gave me the weather forecast and told me that we would be doing a lot of hiking. Since most of the countries in Asia are quite warm this time of year, the only places that fit all of the clues were New Zealand and Japan.

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So you might wonder why anyone would fly across the world to New Zealand for only a week. Valid question. Most Americans would make that a 2-3 week trip, minimum. But when you (or your husband, in my case) finds an unbelievable fare deal of $200 round trip from LA to New Zealand, you book it. And it helps that neither of us has any problem sleeping on planes. I got a solid 8 hours in on both legs meaning I never experienced jet lag.

Driving through New Zealand
Driving through New Zealand

The particular deal he found on Qantas required us to fly into Melbourne for a long layover before moving on to Auckland. I was honestly more surprised to find out that we were going to Melbourne than to New Zealand! We had just visited Melbourne last year and I never would have suspected that we would return so soon. It was a pleasant surprise indeed to spend Thanksgiving in Oz. The city was already decked out in Christmas décor since the Aussies don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but as good Americans, we celebrated the holiday with a big brekkie at Eliana Lulu in our favorite laneway and a self-guided walking tour of Victorian-era architecture and current-era graffiti.

Back in our favorite laneway
Back in our favorite laneway
Back in Melbourne
Back in Melbourne
Victorian architecture
Victorian architecture
Laneway art
Laneway art

Before I get into the specifics of what we did, I want to share some general tips to help you plan your trip to New Zealand. This country is the perfect destination for any nature lover or outdoor enthusiast. It’s a place where you can take a deep breath of fresh air in the silence of nature while enjoying the pleasant feeling that only comes from being the only person around for miles.

TOP TIPS FOR A TRIP TO NEW ZEALAND

  • Rent a car/van. The best way to get around in New Zealand is by car. The roads are in great condition and easy to follow. Many trailheads are accessible from the roads so it’s easy to stop and stretch your legs or have lunch. Loads of people rent camper vans because New Zealand allows “freedom camping” in many places (you don’t have to have a designated campsite). Just don’t speed; there are cops on radar and you will get stopped and ticketed.
  • Pack for all types of weather. Specifically, bring hiking boots, a raincoat, a jacket, and an umbrella. I’ve never been anywhere where the weather changes so quickly! From freezing rain to sunny skies to misty mornings, the weather is tough to predict so your best defense is to be prepared. It was much colder than predicted the first few days we were there and I ended up wearing all of my clothes in layers.
  • Do a farmstay. I doubt I can put into words how peaceful it is to sleep on a farm in the middle of nowhere. No streetlights shining in the windows, no traffic noises, only the sounds of sheep bleating in the morning. Plus you can see how a New Zealand farm operates and you can get to know some locals. Several farms in the area offer farmstays (we stayed at Southern Venues High Country FarmStay and loved it) and for an additional fee, you can actually go work on the farm with them. Alternatively, you could WWOOF in New Zealand where you volunteer to help on the land and home for 4-6 hours a day and hosts provide the food and accommodation. (WWOOF New Zealand)
  • Go skydiving. If you want to jump out of a plane surrounded by the most beautiful views in the world, Skydive Wanaka is the place to do it. You’ll fly 12,000 or 15,000 feet into the sky and jump out attached to your “beautiful stranger.” After free-falling through icy clouds for 15 seconds, your tandem jumper will release your chute and you’ll see stunning views of Lakes Wanaka and Hāwea with the Remarkables mountain range in the background. This was definitely one of the most incredible and exhilarating experiences of my life and I felt totally safe with the professional Skydive Wanaka team. Don’t miss this activity- it’s one you will never forget!
  • Take a ride on the TranzAlpine Scenic Train. This four-hour train ride is on many people’s bucket lists and for good reason. Huge windows and an open air car display the rolling pastures of the Canterbury Plains filled with yellow tussock and sheep, deep gorges of the Waimakariri River, native beech forests, the magnificent Southern Alps, and the ridges of Arthur’s Pass. You can take a round-trip and ride the train all day or take it one direction as your mode of transportation. While on the train, you can sample Kapiti New Zealand Ice Cream made with the cream from regional sheep. The train and open air car were packed through Arthur’s Pass, but it opened up when several tour groups departed there.
  • Cruise through Milford Sound (take the early morning cruise). This is one activity that you cannot miss. This fjord is perpetually misty, giving it a mysterious and otherworldly feel.  Do yourself a favor and avoid the crowds (and non English-speaking tour groups) by booking the first cruise of the day with Southern Discoveries at 9:45 am. Southern Discoveries has smaller boats with fewer passengers which makes for ideal viewing of wildlife and nature. The company even provides industrial raincoats so you can stand under a glacial falls while you taste the pure water (and freeze your behind off!). Tea, coffee, and a bagged lunch are complimentary on the morning ride. If it’s a nice day, you can add a kayak trip. Otherwise, you’ll return at noon, just in time to take your bagged lunch on one of the unpopulated trails overlooking the entrance to Milford Sound.
  • Eat/drink in a shipping container or renovated building in Christchurch. Christchurch was mostly destroyed in the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, but instead of becoming a devastated former city, the citizens of Christchurch took the opportunity to modernize and innovate. Re:Start Container Mall is a shopping mall constructed out of shipping containers that has evolved into a must-visit destination for shipping and cafes. And High Street is filled with trendy restaurants and bars like Strange and Co (po’boys), the Lower 9th (burgers and cocktails), Smash Palace (burgers and beer), and Dux Central (farm to table with live music).
  • Build in time for photo stops. You’re going to stop for photos. A lot. So plan on adding some time to every drive so you can stop at your leisure and not feel rushed. Also, if you stopped every time you wanted to take a picture, you’d never get anywhere so make a point to sometimes just enjoy the view with mental snapshots.
  • Be flexible. We drove 1182 kilometers (almost 735 miles) in a week, so needless to say, there was a lot of time spent in the car. Sometimes, you might have to change plans because of the weather. Or you might see something that you want to spend more time at, meaning you have to cut something else off the end of the day. Don’t worry about it. Just be flexible and relax (isn’t that what vacation is supposed to be anyway?) and enjoy what you can. This is not the time for FOMO!
  • Take a Koru Hour flight on Air New Zealand. aka Happy Hour flights with free drinks. How have we not thought of this in the United States? Koru Hour flights are offered Monday to Friday between 4:35pm and 7:05pm on flights over 50 minutes to certain destinations. All wines, beers, and cider are complimentary, along with snacks like cheese and crackers. Koru Hour is also offered before 8am, but includes tea or coffee and a muffin (they’re civilized, people).
  • Meet a kiwi. People will tell you that the kiwis are the friendliest people on the planet and its true. Whether you make a friend while hiking, ask questions on a tour, or stay in a b&b or home, take some time to get to know the locals. They are a curious and open people and it’s always important to learn about the culture of the place where you are traveling.
  • Hike (or as the kiwis call it, tramp) everywhere. As I’ve stated numerous times in this post, there are myriad hiking opportunities in New Zealand. Trails are abundant and many are easily accessible from the road. If you have more time, there are several multi-day hiking opportunities, but even if you only have time for day hikes, you can almost always find one. This is definitely the place to get outside, enjoy nature, and thank God for this exquisite planet of ours!

If you want to follow our trip, this is what our time in New Zealand looked like:
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From Melbourne, we flew to Auckland in the North Island, where we spent the night at the Crowne Plaza Auckland. The next day, we took a free walking tour, had another brekkie at Imperial Lane, and spent an unexpected 2 hours stuck in traffic in an Uber only to just miss our flight to Christchurch (lesson learned: get to the airport earlier!). If we had more time, I would have visited some of the museums in Auckland. Many are free because of donations from private citizens.

Walking tour in Auckland
Walking tour in Auckland
Christmas in Auckland
Christmas in Auckland
Imperial Lane
Imperial Lane
Brekkie board
Brekkie board

Fortunately, we got the next flight and made it to Christchurch in the South Island for dinner and a stay at the Grange B&B. I wished we could have had more time in Christchurch because it is a fascinating place filled with green parks and construction. Buildings that were destroyed during the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes sit next to brand-new structures. Despite our brief visit, we still had a great time. We went out to dinner and bars near High Street, a really cool part of town that was filled with young people. Our favorites were Smash Palace (burgers and drinks in a courtyard) and Dux Central (farm to table menu with live music). ProTip: To get around Uber restrictions, drop your pin just outside of the airport and you’ll be able to get one.

Strange and Co
Strange and Co
Smash
Smash Palace
Dux Central
Dux Central

In the morning, we boarded the TranzAlpine Scenic Train for a four-hour narrated journey through stunning mountain vistas to Greymouth, on the west coast of the South Island.

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Inside the TranzAlpine Train
Inside the TranzAlpine Train

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Once in Greymouth, we rented a car, stocked up on snacks and wine, and drove to Haast. We stopped a few times along the way to hike to Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.

Hiking in the rain to Franz Josef Glacier
Hiking in the rain to Franz Josef Glacier

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Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier
Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier

Unfortunately, the skies opened up just as we were finishing the Franz Josef Glacier hike, so we weren’t able to do the Lake Matheson hike, which is said to have a beautiful reflection of Mts. Cook and Tasman in the lake on a clear day. We had dinner at the restaurant at our hotel, the Heartland World Heritage Hotel Haast in Haast. It’s not our usual preference to eat at a hotel, but it was literally the first restaurant we saw and it turned out to be quite good!

It was a rainy night, but the skies cleared up in the morning and we spent a beautiful day doing several scenic hikes along the Haast Highway. We hiked to a few different falls (Roaring Billy, Thunder Creek, and Fantail Falls) and outlooks (Haast Pass, Cameron Lookout, and the Blue Pools) before getting back in the car to drive to Wanaka for lunch. Our favorite hike was easily Haast Pass. A short but very steep trail of switchbacks leads you over the bushline to a lookout with incredible 360 degree views. Thunder Falls was also impressive and well worth the short hike.

Arctic jungle
Arctic jungle
Thunder Falls
Thunder Falls
Roaring Billy
Roaring Billy

 

Haast Pass
Haast Pass

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Cameron Lookout
Cameron Lookout
The Blue Pools
The Blue Pools

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After staring at the clear blue Lake Wanaka for an hour during our lunch at Lake Hawea Hotel, we decided this was the place we had to go skydiving. (A little background: I had never been skydiving, but have always wanted to go. My only criteria was that my jump be in a place with beautiful views.) While waiting for our evening jump, we walked around the town of Wanaka and got some meat pies for dinner since we knew we would have to drive straight to our hotel after the jump.

The plane we jumped out of
The plane we jumped out of
Me in my flightsuit (with all of my layers on underneath!)
Me in my flightsuit (with all of my layers on underneath!)
The view from the jump (photo via Skydive Wanaka)
The view from the jump (photo via Skydive Wanaka)

After our jump, we drove to the Top 10 Holiday Park hotel in the town of Te Anau, set on the edge of a lake and surrounded by mountains. We woke up early to drive to Milford Sound for a scenic boat ride with Southern Discoveries through the fjords. While on the boat ride, we saw penguins and seals and drank fresh glacier water from a waterfall.

Snow on the drive to Milford Sound
Snow on the drive to Milford Sound

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After, we took a leisurely drive back to Te Anau, stopping at a few short trails along the way like The Chasm, Lake Marian, Mirror Lakes, Eglinton Valley, and Lake Mistletoe.

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The Chasm
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Mirror Lake
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Lake Mistletoe
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Eglington Valley

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We had venison pizza with pomegranate red onions for dinner at Paradiso, one of the several Italian restaurants in town. While eating dessert at Naturally Fiordland Pizzeria (the only place in town with free Wi-Fi!), we decided to book a farmstay on a sheep farm for our last night in the South Island. An hour later, we showed up at Southern Venues High Country Homestay near Athol where we had tea with our host family before relaxing on our private deck with a bottle of wine and unbelievable views as far as the eye could see. After one of the most peaceful and restful sleeps of my life, we woke up and had a breakfast prepared by our hosts and took a walk to the top of a hill on the property.

View from our personal deck
View from our personal deck

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After leaving the farm, we drove to Queenstown for a delicious Thai lunch at Tam Nak Thai, fudge at Remarkable Sweet Shop, a short hike up Queenstown Hill, and a little shopping before flying back to Auckland for dinner and a few hours of sleep before we began our long journey home from Auckland to Melbourne to Los Angeles to Charlotte and finally, to Florida.

View from Queenstown Hill
View from Queenstown Hill

As always, thank you for reading! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours!

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