In a time that was pre-quarantine and freedom to travel was a luxury, my partner and I managed to squeeze a couple of weeks out of New Zealand’s South Island before rushing back to remain grounded in lockdown. Here are some of the highlights I’d recommend to readers:
Since we had already managed to cover most of the Southerly parts of this island whilst residing in Queenstown, we visited everything worthwhile from Fox Glacier and upwards in around 2 weeks. If you have more time to spend, then I would advise trying the Catlins on the South coast and most definitely either Milford or Doubtful Sound. These locations offer a chance to take a boat cruise through the famous fjords of South West New Zealand and with so many different agencies, you can choose a cruise which suits your budget. As previously mentioned in one of my other posts, ‘Book Me’ is a great website for finding great deals and discounts around the whole of New Zealand, Australia & Fiji and a lot of the fjord cruises can be found here also!
Doubtful Sound is best for travellers who have more time to spend as they offer overnight cruises, whereas Milford has a range of daytime trips or even scenic flights if you have the wish to splurge! I’d recommend Mitre Peak as the best Milford cruise company as their smaller boat offers a more personal experience and their tour can get closest to the Stirling waterfall, giving customers a ‘glacial facial’ (a chance to get royally soaked by a famous waterfall). For about $10 NZD you can also pay to take the short trip to see Milford’s highest waterfall known as Bowen Falls, standing at 161 metres tall.
Moving over to the South East, travellers can visit Dunedin – this city is known primarily for its large student base and is a good stop for anyone wanting a break from all of the countryside towns and a place to have a nice bit of brekkie! Parc Cafe is a personal favourite. Dunedin will take about half a day to wander around the city centre and the nearby Tunnel Beach is a good stop for a quick, downhill walk to take in the views of the sea cliffs (but remember, what goes down must go back up again – not great after a full English!)
Travelling up North, Queenstown would be the next location on the map. Following this, Mt Cook and Lake Tekapo are probably the best areas to head to, but since there are no access roads from Mt Cook to Fox Glacier/ Franz Josef, annoyingly drivers will have to go back on themselves and up again to get towards the West Coast – bear that in mind if you’re strapped for time. See map at the bottom of the post for reference.
When driving, the Mt Cook turn off is before the lake but since the road leading off takes about an hour, I would suggest going the further distance to Lake Tekapo first then coming back to do Mt Cook. In Tekapo, you can enjoy the hot springs which can be purchased for the cheaper price of around $16 if you use the previously mentioned website ‘Book Me’, as opposed to just rolling up on the day. The lake itself is a stunning aqua blue and is something quite striking to see as you drive into town. Alternatively, you can take a drive up to the Mt John observatory (entry fee on arrival as nothing is ever free my friends) and here, you can have a coffee as you take in the beauty of the area. Tekapo is also known for its amazing, starry skies and informative tours are held by the ‘Dark Sky Project’ centre. For those who want to keep their budget down, due to the lack of light pollution just outside of the town, you can simply pull up and gaze at the millions of twinkling lights from the comfort of your car and if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of a shooting star.
Mt Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand which, even in the summer months, is snow capped and can be seen with icebergs floating in the surrounding lake. Its most popular hike; the Hooker Valley track is only 5km but is unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), always swarming with tourists due to its easy and accessible walkway. Nonetheless, it’s definitely still worth dodging bodies for, as it is the epitome of the South Island’s rugged, glacial climate.
For the West Coast, Fox Glacier is the first stop on the map. The local hike takes roughly 1.5 hours from start to finish. You can grab a decent snap of Fox Glacier from a fair distance and then be off on your way to Franz Josef where there is a variety of walks to choose from. Be warned, that some trails can be restricted due to flooding or ice fall, so make sure you take this into consideration. Flooding was the unfortunate problem on our visit but most of the tracks offer a great view of the Franz Josef glacier regardless. For those seeking more adventure, both of the glaciers can also be walked on top of, with a guided tour.
In Franz Josef town, there is another set of hot springs which are unfortunately pricier than Lake Tekapo and these three jacuzzis are in a much smaller and shaded area. Due to this, you can risk feeling very up close and personal to the wrinkly on your left. Might be worth just visiting the Tekapo Springs instead. Following on from here, you can head up and across Arthur’s Pass to the next destination; Christchurch. Another suggestion would be to stop along the way at the Castle Hill walk which is a pull in just off of the main road. These large, limestone rocks rise high from the hill and can be explored on foot for a quick 20 minute stop. It takes about an hour from here to arrive into Christchurch.
The first go to in Christchurch is the local transport – you can download the ‘Lime’ app and see the city via electric powered scooters, or take a trip on the old fashion tram which glides through the centre. Unfortunately, due to Christchurch’s earthquake in 2011, the city is still slowly trying to restore its former buzz and at times can be noticeably somber. The local cathedral is behind locked gates and gradually being renovated after the devastation. Paying a visit to the Quake City museum gives an interesting look in more detail about Christchurch’s turbulent earthquake history. 2 nights should be enough time for visitors to fully explore and other places to see include the Botanic Gardens, open air cinema on weekends, the Little High Eatery and Riverside food courts for reasonably priced food/ drinks.
Kaikoura is the next worthy stop on the list. The seaside town being best known for either its whale watching flights or dolphin/ seal kayaking tours. We chose to go with the well known company Kaikoura Kayaks and had the pleasure of getting up close and personal with a colony of sunbathing seals. Kaikoura also has a Sunday farmer’s market which although, is a helluva lot smaller than originally anticipated, gives you the chance to try some of the local foods. Another neighbourhood pitstop is the nearby lavender farm, perfect for viewing in Spring and Summer months (this we stupidly didn’t realise as we trundled in during Autumn 2020). Here, you can also spend your time cooing over the farm’s resident sheep and chickens.
Cooper’s Catch is the best (and most reasonably priced) local chippy for a great finish to your day, overlooking the sea with your battered, coronary clogging meal. Crayfish is also a popular delicacy here, with the town ‘Kaikoura’ translating in Maori for food (Kai) and Crayfish (Koura). Heading North from here, you can stop in the small town of Nelson for a nosy round as it has a few shops and restaurants to browse from. Abel Tasman is quite a hefty drive away so some overnight stops in-between are definitely needed. We used the ‘THL’ phone app as opposed to ‘Campermate’ as this tended to show more free campsite options.
3 nights in Abel Tasman should be suitable for this large national park, however this could be shortened to 2 nights if you’re pushed for time. One of its popular sights, ‘Split Apple Rock’ is an unusual, natural rock formation amidst a hidden beach cove but the Abel Tasman coastal walk is the park’s main attraction, this taking 3-5 days to complete on foot. Alternatively, you can drive to both ends of the coastal stretch and wander for a few hours on either side. We began at the Tōtaranui campground, but this takes you down an excruciating 12km unsealed path so for those of you who don’t have insurance on your rented vehicle, I wouldn’t advise it. Or if you have an old banger like ours, knock yourself out!
A free campsite in which people can stay is ‘Waitapu Bridge’. From here, you can head to the Mārahau area and the ‘official’ start for the coastal trek. To begin, cross the estuary after the car park. This is not a loop track so you will have to double back on yourself once you have travelled as far as you wish. The walk also has many quaint bays to stop at, which are a pleasant way to get sidetracked from the main path. From here, our travels led us to Picton to board the ferry across to Wellington and the gateway to the North Island. However, after being abruptly given a 48 hour window to get ourselves back to Queenstown for the COVID-19 lockdown period, we rushed back on another costly $116 NZD ferry after a total of 4 nights in the North Island. What a joy.