The trap that many people fall into when visiting New Zealand is to attempt to cram too much in, eager to see as much as possible and often underestimating journey times between places. Surely as a travel expert I would avoid such obvious pitfalls...ahem. Suffice to say it's a case of "do as I say, not as I do".
Throughout my travels, I’d never actually managed to get to New Zealand but with so many Travel Nation passengers heading there, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. With only a couple of weeks in which to explore this magical land, I planned to spend 2 weeks in New Zealand, sticking to the South Island. And it’s fair to say that I managed to pack a lot in!
Whilst it’s possible to move around more quickly, I’d recommend you spend at least 2 or 3 weeks on each island to fully appreciate everything on offer. Here’s a quick round up of my whistle stop tour…
You can fly directly into Christchurch, so my Southern adventure began with and afternoon exploring this city. As it was my first visit, I didn’t have any reference to the city before the 2011 earthquake when large parts of the city were decimated (it really felt like the set of a Hollywood disaster movie in places). Listening to local residents, many of them knew at least one person who lost their life. However, it’s clearly a city rising out of the rubble and re-inventing itself with more hotels and attractions than ever being built. I reckon it’s going to become a really dynamic city within the next few years and well worth another visit.
Driving for 90 minutes south-east towards the Banks Peninsula, you can wind through farmland and across rolling hills towards a little town called Akaroa. Perched on a beautiful bay, there’s one main attraction – swimming with rare Hector dolphins. Sadly the weather wasn’t kind this time, so I missed out on the swim, but at least I have an excuse to go back!
Lake Tekapo is about a 3 hour drive from Christchurch. Whilst there isn’t really anywhere to stop apart from a quick lunch break in Geraldine (a regular stop for hop-on and off buses), the Southern Alps are a constant stunning view on the horizon.
Lake Tekapo itself is pristine and a must-see destination for jaw-droppingly beautiful pictures. The town is very small, with some hostels, a wonderful Peppers resort hotel (where I stayed) and hot springs. Well worth an overnight stay.
It’s incredible to realise just how much light pollution we have in the UK compared to the clear skies over New Zealand. The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is the largest gold-rated reserve in the world. It’s a fantastic location if you’re into astro-photography or just want to see the stars as never before.
Nestled on the top of a mountain above the lake, you can spend 2 hours discovering what’s really up in the sky. Wrapped up in huge warm coats, and slurping lots of hot chocolate, you’ll be able to see the Milky Way, Saturn’s rings and a whole host of southern hemisphere constellations. Amazing!
The early morning drive from Tekapo to Mount Cook blew me away. Motoring through desert and mountains, you won’t see another car for 30–45 minutes at a time. Mt Cook (the highest peak in New Zealand) looms on the horizon, gradually getting closer and more spectacular with every mile.
This is the perfect spot for some outdoor adventure. I joined a 4WD safari tour venturing high into the mountains. Forget trying this with a car or campervan – there’s no chance. Sat in an 8-wheeled Argo vehicle, we swept across boulders and through deep puddles of icy water. It’s bumpy but the views across the glacier and mountain are well worth it!
Driving back towards the coast brings you to the Moerkai Boulders and although I wasn’t really sure what to expect, the whole area amazed me - it was a real highlight. The Moerkai boulders are a Maori legend; scattered across the beach and soaring out of the sand like huge eggs, these boulders are quite a sight. The café here also does amazing breakfasts to perk up the tired traveller!
Dunedin is a vibrant university town with a Scottish feel (think Edinburgh, but sunnier). The city offers great entertainment, accommodation (I stayed at the Millennium Kingsgate Hotel), world-class rugby and only a 20 minute drive out onto the Otago Peninsula. Whilst there, you must visit Baldwin Street (the world’s steepest street) and take a tour of Speight’s Brewery – it’s my new favourite beer and it’s a real Southern Island institution!
The Otago Peninsula is great for sailing, cycling, stunning views and its home to albatross, penguins, seals and much, much more fascinating wildlife.
Heading further south, you’ll reach Invercargill - a jumping off point for Stewart Island (which is really off the beaten track). It’s the southern-most tip of New Zealand and next stop is Antarctica!
You can take a 20 minute light aircraft flight over to Stewart Island from Invercargill (not for the faint hearted). Flying through the clouds, below you can see crystal clear waters and native rainforest. Think Jurassic Park and you aren’t far wrong.
Stewart Island has only 400 proud full residents and over 75% of the island is yet to be explored. It’s a nature lover’s paradise with many treks and native wildlife safe from predators. One night here was the highlight of my whole trip; take the chance to sail out to a deserted island in the dark, trek through rainforest by torchlight and search for native Kiwi’s on the beach. We managed to find 3 birds (and a lot of sand flies) and it was an amazing experience seeing them in their natural habitat.
This is the place to head to if jumping off bridges, out of planes and into bars sounds like your kind of thing! If you like your activities a bit more sedate, don’t let that put you off, as Queenstown also offers world-class trekking on its doorstep, and a path around the lake which is perfect for walking or cycling.
Fjordland National Park is an easy side trip from Queenstown and a south island highlight. Words simply can’t describe the sheer beauty of the fjords – they are jaw-droppingly spectacular! You can take an overnight cruise through the chasms of Doubtful (my favourite) and Milford Sound to spot seals, dolphins and plunging waterfalls. My biggest regret here was missing the opportunity to kayak on the water – another activity to add to my “next time” list.
Next we headed north from Queenstown to Wanaka. It’s often overlooked but well worth a few days of your time – it was one of many places I wished I could have stayed longer. Wanaka is located on the shores of the lake with green hills all around, it's a beautiful place to go hiking, sailing, sky diving or to just sit in one of the lake side bars enjoying the very agreeable surroundings over a cold beer or two.
Continuing on through Mount Aspiring National Park, you’ll reach the awesome Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers – this region’s biggest attractions. The mighty rivers of ice, ancient rainforests and blue waters of Lake Matheson are truly spectacular too. I highly recommend a helicopter trip across the ice fields if you have the chance (and budget!).
What better way to finish off my adventure than an iconic journey on the TranzAlpine train. I’m not a great lover of rail journeys (my daily commute puts pay to that) however, the 4. 5 hour journey through the majestic snow-capped Alps from Greymouth to Christchurch is something special. It’s an easy way to cross the south island, so you can work this journey easily into any itinerary here.
I’m so glad I made this trip (albeit a whistle stop adventure). I now understand exactly why everyone raves about this country - it’s truly stunning and so easy to get around. I’d love to go back as soon as possible but might wait until I can spare a couple of months rather than weeks as there is just too much to see!
You can see more of New Zealand by easily adding the North Island to your trip. Take the 3 hour ferry from Picton or simply fly north to Auckland or Wellington from Christchurch, Queenstown or Dunedin.