New Zealand may be small, but it packs a punch with epic mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, and rugged beaches.
No matter how long you’re there, it’s difficult not to fall in love with the country.
Although our time in New Zealand was short, it was epic.
With less than a week in the country, we had to prioritise the places we went, what we saw, and the experiences we did.
Anticipating New Zealand would be expensive, we knew it’d be smart to decide which experiences we wanted to do before arriving in the country.
Planning our trip, we made the decision to trim in some areas (accomodation, meals, rental car) so that we could splurge on a few activities.
Namely: a night at the onsen spa with massages, cruising the magnificent Milford Sound, and soaring over snow-capped mountains in a glacier heli-flight.
Were the budget decisions we made worth it?
The experiences we chose were unbelievable, and we created memories that’ll last a lifetime.
That said, there are seemingly endless things to do in the South Island from bungee jumping to skydiving, so narrowing your top choices may be hard- especially if you’re trying to do New Zealand on a budget.
We chose to visit in winter, knowing the weather may be variable, but also realizing we’d be able to score discounts on just about everything.
And, sure enough, both our fjord cruise and glacier flight advertised lower rates in the ‘off-season’.
If you’re planning a trip to the South Island, these three experiences should be on your consideration list. Ultimately though, what you decide has to be a reflection of what interests you most (it’s your time and money), and we couldn’t have been happier with our choices.
3 Can’t Miss Experiences in New Zealand’s South Island
Soaking in an Onsen Tub with a Valley View
Picture this: A private hot tub in the mountains with expansive valley views, where you sip bubbles, nibble New Zealand chocolate, and just relax in the beauty of nature.
If that sounds like a dreamy experience to you, then you’ll understand why we were so excited to visit the hot pools during our time in the South Island.
The Onsen pools were one of the things I desperately wanted to do most on our trip to Queenstown.
They’re fresh-water, private hot-tubs, located in rooms with retractable roofs. They’re private, serene, and pretty much perfect.
And yet, when we went to book (a month prior), we were gutted to discover there weren’t any spots available for the experience we wanted- the classic, hour-long soak.
We did see one opening in the entire week we’d be in New Zealand for their ultimate package, which includes an hour-long soak, plus an hour-long massage.
The price was nearly 2x what it would have been otherwise, and so, we were understandably, on the fence about booking.
In the end, we decided to splurge for it, and it was utter magic.
With only one opening left, it meant we had to go at night, so we didn’t have the beautiful valley views those who visit in the day are treated to, but the night sky was something else. The twinkling stars were so bright, gazing at them for an hour was incredible.
And, visiting in winter, we loved feeling the crisp mountain air against the steam rising from the hot pool.
The massage that followed was unbelievable.
Overall, it was just the most blissful, calming experience.
We drove to the pools, because we were staying in a hotel nearby for the night, but they also run a shuttle (at cost) to town for guests who either don’t have a car, or don’t want to drive.
Cruising the Eighth Wonder of the World
Exploring the South Island, you’ll quickly realise why it was chosen as the location for the Lord of the Rings filming.
New Zealand’s rugged landscape is straight out of a fairy tale.
It’s even home to a place that’s considered the eighth wonder of the world for its spectacular and untouched beauty.
It’s hard to put into words how just incredible the Milford Sound is.
It’s the number one attraction in the South Island with daily cruises in the sound, as well as tours running from Queenstown.
Cruising the fjord lasted about two hours, and was picture perfect scenery at every bend.
You’ll see soaring limestone cliffs on either side of you, and towering snow capped mountain peaks, including Mount Mitre.
The fjord has two waterfalls- Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls, both fed by glaciers. On our visit, we were lucky to see so many other streams of water flowing down the mountainside, created by the recent rainfall.
In addition to stunning scenery, we also were fortunate to spot rare penguins, tons of seals, and cruised out to where the fjord meets the Tasman Sea.
There are often dolphins in the fjord as well, but our boat operator told us they’d spotted them only the day prior, and it’s not common to see them on consecutive days.
Perhaps one of the best things about visiting the sound is that it’s so much more than a fjord cruise.
On our drive back to Queenstown, we stopped several times for short hikes, and to revel in lookout points.
// For more about the majesty of the Milford Sound, read the review of my experience here //
Soaring Over Snow-Capped Mountains in Search of Glaciers
A glacier helicopter tour is the adventure of a lifetime.
Just imagine soaring over glittering fields of ice, snow-capped mountains, and deep valleys. It’s an experience that makes you appreciate the beauty of the glaciers- it’s pure, incredible nature.
Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are nearby each other, surrounded by rainforest.
Tours depart from either town, but there are more providers in Franz Josef, which is why we chose to book our tour from there.
We reserved with Fox and Franz Josef Heliservices, and had a cracker of a time.
Not only was the experience unbelievable, but the heliservice staff were so helpful, in coordinating details and even rebooking our flight when the weather didn’t cooperate.
Originally, we booked a mid-afternoon single-glacier flight.
Arriving in Franz Josef though, we observed clouds rolling in, and were worried our flight would be cancelled. Sure enough, when the pilot landed from the flight before ours, he reported deteriorating flying conditions and advised against continued flights that afternoon.
We hadn’t built much flexibility into our itinerary because we were short on time, but decided to switch up some plans for the day following, and hoped visibility would be good enough for a morning flight.
Little did we know, we’d be double lucky.
One, we were fortunate to be able to fly.
And, two, the switch-up in our booking meant we were put on a ‘twin glacier’ tour, so for the price we’d paid for a shorter, single flight, we got to go on a flight almost twice as long, which visited both Fox Glacier and Franz Josef, including landing on Fox.
Flights are expensive, but they’re also the best way to see the glaciers. The glaciers have receded so much, you can’t see much anymore from the hiking point below.
And really, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Flying over rugged mountains, and then landing on solid snow, where you have 10-15 minutes to wander around and enjoy the view of massive snow drifts and distant peaks is nothing short of phenomenal.
Our pilot was excellent, ensuring we got the best experience possible. We flew close to both glaciers, as well as over valleys and mountain peaks.
In terms of when to go, we were surprised to learn weather is more stable during winter than any other season. There are also more clear days in winter, and the ice moves less.
On the flight itself, you won’t be able to bring much- a camera and phone is about it. No selfie sticks are allowed, nor are iPads in the helicopter (they block the view). Any other items (purses, wallets, etc.) just add weight, so you’re encouraged to leave them behind.
Have you ever been to New Zealand? What adventures are at the top of your travel list?
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