A trip to New Zealand really is a trip to Middle Earth.
It’s a country with landscapes that’ll make you pinch yourself to check you’re not dreaming.
It may be small, but New Zealand sure packs a punch with epic mountains, volcanoes, glaciers and wild beaches.
Saying the South Island is an exquisitely beautiful place would be an understatement. It has everything- spectacular mountain ranges, the bluest lakes I’ve ever seen, sparkling glaciers, and lush rainforests with streaming waterfalls.
We left a week of exploring the South Island feeling exceptionally grateful.
New Zealand has always been on my travel list, and yet, even as we were in the midst of our trip, it all felt so surreal.
It’s that magical of a destination.
AN ITINERARY FOR 6 DAYS IN THE SOUTH ISLAND
We would have loved to have more time, but at the time of our trip, we could each only swing a week off work. Wanting to go for any longer would have meant delaying the trip, and possibly not going.
Chatting it over with friends in the US and UK though, they told us if they were holidaying, they’d only expect to have 6-8 days to explore- once long-haul flights and jetlag are factored in.
So, while parts of our time felt a bit rushed, we didn’t mind it because we were keen to see and do as much as possible. And, it helped we had spectacular weather on our side.
Day 1: Arrive in Queenstown at 11 am (we flew from Melbourne, where we’d been living, so we didn’t feel jet lagged); Spend day in Queenstown; Drive to Te Anau late afternoon
Day 2: Depart Te Anau early morning, drive to Milford Sound; Leave Milford Sound late afternoon to head back to Queenstown for a late night Onsen Pools experience (8:30 pm booking), and overnight stay
Day 3: Drive to Franz Josef, via Hawea
Day 4: Morning glacier flight; Drive to Tekapo via Hokitika and Arthur’s Pass (this route added 2-3 hours to our drive, but it was too beautiful to miss)
Day 5: Morning in Tekapo; Drive to Pukai; Mount Cook hikes*; Drive to Wanaka at night
Day 6: Morning in Wanaka; Drive to Queenstown for late-afternoon flight to Sydney
*Although doing 1-2 Mount Cook hikes was part of our itinerary, the weather had other ideas, and we were forced to turn back on our drive to Cook. This ended up working out nicely for us, because it put us in Wanaka mid-afternoon, which meant we had time to leisurely explore and watch sunset lakeside.
Also worth noting, the back-half of our trip was pushed back by a half day after our glacier helicopter flight was moved from the afternoon we arrived to the following morning (in favour of better flying conditions). We were okay with this change, because the glacier flight was one of the top things we hoped to do in the South Island, but it did mean things in Tekapo, Cook and Wanaka were more rushed than they would have been otherwise.
I haven’t included drive time estimates for a reason- there’s what Google tells you, and there’s what it actually is.
In reality, we ended up stopping so often, we added 2-4 hours to every drive. Which, again, we didn’t mind, because it meant we were spending time hiking and seeing the beauty of nature that’d brought us to New Zealand to begin with.
HOW TO GET AROUND
It’s the best way to see the country- some cities have limited public transit, but to truly experience the best New Zealand has to offer, you’ll need to rent a car (or camper van).
If you’re only heading to Queenstown and want to see the Milford Sound without renting a car, you can look into same day tour providers, like Awesome NZ.
Just know you won’t have the flexibility to stop throughout the sound and explore short hikes or overlooks you may desire.
We reserved our car two months ahead of time at a cancellable rate, and then checked weekly for price drops.
At the end of winter, during peak ski season in Queenstown, we paid £15 per day from a budget provider, Scottie’s, and £60 for a week of insurance. We had an old car, but it worked perfectly.
And, parking fee wise- we didn’t encounter national park entry, or parking fees anywhere, aside from street parking in Queenstown. Even there, you can find free, limited time parking if you’re willing to drive around for a while to avoid the expensive metered lots.
WHAT TO DO IN EACH STOP
Ah, the adventure capital of the world. No surprise, there’s loads to do in this beautiful, small city.
Wander idyllic, downtown Queenstown: The area is cute, full of mostly upscale shops and eateries.
Take the skyline gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak: Return gondola tickets aren’t exactly cheap at +£20, but the views are once in a lifetime worth it. There’s also a luge at the top of the mountain, and a bungee jump.
Relax at the Onsen Hot Pools with soaring valley views:
Picture this: A private hot tub in the mountains, with expansive valley views, where you can sip bubbles, nibble New Zealand chocolate, and just relax while taking 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. Fortunately, the experience was everything we could have dreamed.
If you’re spending more time in Queenstown, there’s loads more to do- swimming and boating on the lake, and skiing in the nearby mountains.
Also, no shortage of adrenaline pumping activities– bungee jumping, skydiving, and the like.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
- Fergberger: The queues are worth it. Known for their real burgers the falafel one was epic, and don’t sleep on the onion rings
- Fergbakery: Picked up a few pastries here for Te Anau, knowing we’d be leaving early morning. So delicious
- Vudu Cafe & Larder: Perfect for brunch
- Surreal Bar & Restaurant: The spot for mulled wine on a rooftop
- Cafe Society: Outside of town, near the shopping mall with two budget grocery stores- great mochas
- Boatshed Cafe: Our favourite cafe in Queenstown, just adorable. A short drive from town, waterfront with the best views and plenty of dogs
We didn’t love our budget hotel in Queenstown, and I’d encourage you to try and stay in town so you can easily walk around.
The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau elicited no fewer than a dozen instances of ‘omg’ and ‘bloody hell’. It’s stunning.
We came for one thing- The Milford Sound. I know there are other hikes and such in the area, and would encourage you to look into them if you have more time.
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.
Our ship sailed right up to and underneath several of the bigger falls.
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 usual 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.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
- Sandfly Cafe (great for a coffee stop)
- Redcliffe Cafe (came recommended for dinner, but we didn’t eat there)
We arrived in Te Anau just in time for twilight. We stayed in a private room at the Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers for £30 a night.
We thought we’d be sharing a bathroom with the entire hostel, and were delighted to find that wasn’t the case- it was almost apartment style, instead. In our block, there were two private rooms, a shared dining area, a kitchen nook with microwave, flatware and tea kettle, and a bathroom. Excellent value.
One of our favourite parts of driving the South Island?
How insanely beautiful everything was, everywhere.
On the drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef, we routed through Hawea. Oh, stunning Lake Hawea with striking blue water- we were so stunned by this lake, we pulled over several times for photos, and to just admire it.
After Lake Hawea, the road stretches onto the Haast Pass, a very scenic stretch through mountain valleys.
Here, we stopped at a few places-
- Thunder Creek Falls: We thought this was just another stop-off, but didn’t mind the stretch. Imagine our surprise when we found a gorgeous, cascading waterfall a short walk from the road
- Fantail Falls: Another short walk from the road, you’ll come across these small falls and a river valley- worth the short stop if you’re driving all day
- Haast Blue Pools: We didn’t realise this hike took 45-60 minutes return, and unfortunately didn’t have time for it. But, I’ve heard the pools are the kind of thing that has to be seen to be believed- the water is a deep- aqua blue and surrounded by rocks of varying scale
Continuing on our way, we made it to Franz Josef, a small, two street town.
There aren’t many other places in the world that you can access a glacier just a stone’s throw away from a highway- Franz Josef is one of them.
We came to Franz Josef to do a glacier helicopter ride, which we’d originally scheduled for mid-afternoon.
The weather had other plans though and our ride was delayed until the morning. Mega grateful we were still able to have the experience, but it did mean we had to adjust a few other plans since we got a later than planned start that day.
The South Island may be packed with beautiful sights, but few really match up to the magnificence of the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers.
Walking around the top of the Fox Glacier was an unbelievable experience.
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.
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 rebooking our flight when the weather didn’t cooperate.
We’d also heard there are fantastic natural hot springs in Franz Josef, but didn’t have time to check them out.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
- Full of Beans Cafe: Good option for your morning coffee fix
- SnakeBite Brewery: Upon hearing our flight was postponed/possibly wouldn’t be happening, we headed to the brewery for drinks. Here, we had local ciders, wines, and craft beers. Such a great place, both roomy and cosy with a fire scene crackling on giant tellies
We stayed in a private room with shared bathroom facilities at YHA Franz Josef.
No complaints- the room gave us the privacy we needed, and we were close enough to the restrooms that leaving the room to use them wasn’t an inconvenience. Could have been because it was the off-season, but also never encountered lines for the shower or toilets.
Leaving Franz Josef, we decided to drive through Hokitika and Arthur’s Pass, rather than going back the way we came through Hawea. This added ~3-4 hours to our trip (with all the stops we made), but it was worth it.
At Hokitika, we hiked the most beautiful gorge. A ~15 minute walk from the car park, you’ll arrive at a beautifully coloured lake. If you cross the lake and wander down onto the opposite side, you can climb down rocks to get even closer to the river bed.
Before heading to Arthur’s Pass, we stopped in Hokitika town, because I wanted to see it, and we needed a caffeine boost, which we found at the cute, Stella Cafe.
Then, it was onto the breathtaking Arthur’s Pass.
If you get a chance to drive this pass, do it. We passed several ski resorts, which would be a nice way to spend even more time in the area.
But even just driving it, we were awestruck at the beauty of the mountains.
Just as the sun was starting to set, we rolled into Tekapo. It was too late to see the bright blue colour of the lake, which meant we had a nice surprise in the morning.
In the am, we woke up to watch sunrise over the lake from our bed, which was insane.
Then, we went for a walk around the lakeshore, visiting a historic church.
Tekapo is just breathtaking.
Before heading further south, we backtracked a few miles to the Three Creeks Service Station. We’d passed it at sundown, and wanted to come back in the day for a proper look.
This cool antique shop is an interesting juxtaposition against the soaring mountains of this area. If you’re a vintage junkie, you’ll love popping in here.
Before heading to Pukai, we drove up to the hill overlooking the lake. Entry access costs $8 NZD (£4), but it’s worth it.
The views are sweeping and spectacular. Plus, there’s an adorable coffee shop, Astro Cafe, so you can quite literally have coffee on what feels like the surface of Saturn. We had such a great time, and would have stayed longer, but were evacuated, due to high winds in the area.
- Three Creeks Service Station
- Walk around the lakeshore, and see the historic church
- Drive up to the hill overlooking the lake
- Wake up early for sunrise at the lake
- There are also glacier heli-flights departing from this area, and of course, a ton of lakefront activities (swimming, boating, etc.) in warmer months
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
As with other stops, we relied on our groceries and didn’t eat out much, but these places came highly recommended.
*Denotes we actually stopped there (as detailed above).
- Hokitika: Fat Pipi Pizza, Aurora Restaurant (breakfast), Stella Cafe*, New World Supermarket (for grocery re-stocks)
- Tekapo: Astro Cafe*, Our Dog Friday* (a good restaurant next to our hostel, popped in for ciders after a long day of driving, noted the menu looked great)
We stayed at YHA Lake Tekapo and LOVED it. Newly built, it’s gorgeous.
The common rooms overlook the lake, and are perfect for lounging. And, the communal kitchen is massive, with loads of space for cooking, eating or storing food. We were seriously impressed by how great the kitchen was.
We stayed in a lakefront private room with an en-suite, and loved it. Like in a hotel, we had sheets, towels, toiletries and a coffee maker / tea pot provided.
The best part though, unquestionably, was being able to watch a glowing sunset from the comfort of our bed.
I thought Tekapo was special, but rounding the corner in route to Cook and seeing Lake Pukai knocked my socks off.
The bluest, most vibrant waters I’ve ever seen, and with snow capped mountains in the background?
Words fail me.
It’s a lake that’s truly bluer than the sky.
If you’re planning on hitting up Cook, you’ll drive past it- there’s only one way in and out of Mount Cook.
At Cook, we’d planned on doing 1-2 hikes, but the closer we got to the mountain, the worse the weather was.
With low visibility, freezing rain and a high wind advisory, we had to turn around.
Initially, we were bummed about this. But, having this be the only thing that didn’t ‘work out’ during our entire week felt like an ultimate blessing, especially since we visited during winter.
A gentle reminder to build flexibility into your intereary when you visit, as you can’t predict the weather any season in New Zealand.
Turning back, we drove through the small town of Twizel, which we’d heard was a great place to stop and eat. By the way, it’s pronounced, “Twy-zel” not “Twizzle”.
Instead of stopping though, we decided to keep going to hopefully hit Wanaka by mid-afternoon.
Lake Pukai: There are several pull-offs for you to ogle the lake. We especially liked Peter’s Lookout.
There are tons of hikes and activities to do at Mount Cook, I’m only going to share the ones we’d considered on our schedule. Whatever you have time for, if the weather cooperates, it’s sure to be epic. After all, this is the land where Edmund Hillary trained before being the first to summit Everest
- Hooker Valley
- 10 km return, almost entirely flat
- Begins at White Horse Hill Campground
- You follow the Hooker river through open tussock and over three very photogenic swing bridges until you reach the glorious hooker lake, where there are floating icebergs
- Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier Lake Walk
- 2.6km return
- The Tasman Glacier lake walk is a really short track that branches off the Blue Lakes trail
- There’s nothing particularly special about the track itself, it’s just walking along gravel, but the lake you come out to at the end is ridiculously beautiful
- Tasman Glacier
- We knew we wouldn’t have time for this, but it looks like an amazing place to watch the sunrise
- Follow the signs to the Tasman River and head down to the end of the lake (opposite of the glacier)
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
- Twizel: Shawty’s (great for breakfast)
- Mount Cook: Almost no dining options here (Old Mountaineers Cafe came recommended from friends), would advise bringing your own food
We hadn’t planned on spending the night in Cook, but had looked at YHA Mount Cook. The hotels in the area are limited and expensive.
Plan this accomodation far in advance if you’re on a budget for the best chance at decent rates.
Back on the main roads and en route to Wanaka, it was crazy how different the weather was (blue skies and sunshine).
We arrived in quirky Wanaka just in time to wander town for a bit and see sunset lakeside at #ThatWanakaTree.
Can you say you’ve been to New Zealand without queuing up at sunset to see the Wanaka Tree?
The tree has become so popular there’s a GoogleMaps location. In warmer months, crowds are entertained by a pianist who serenades them as the sun goes down.
Locals told us the tree used to be part of farmland- and a farmer would tie cattle to it. With time, the lake levels rose, and while the other trees are gone, this one has survived, so it looks like it’s floating in water.
Post sunset, we had a drink at local brew shop, Kaai Whaka Pai and then headed to our Airbnb, which was a 15-20 minute drive outside of town.
The next morning, we drove back to Queenstown, stopping in a few of our favorite places- Boatshed Cafe and Ferberger, again.
There’s definitely more to do in Wanaka if you’ve got the time.
- Wander town, tons of cute cafes, shops and restaurants
- There are also some great hikes, and wineries outside of Wanaka if you can swing more time here
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
- Urban Grind Bar & Eatery: Popped in here for chats with locals and hot chocolate
- The Doughbin: Great vegetarian pie
- Big Fig: Came recommended for healthy food, but we didn’t have a chance to eat there
- Kaai Whaka Pai: Awesome selection of NZ beers and wines
In Wanaka, we found the best rate in a private room (attached to a home, with its own en-suite) at an Airbnb outside of town.
Because, we weren’t planning on eating out or drinking in town much, we were cool with staying outside of it for cost savings. Plus, the couple we stayed with was lovely, and their space was great.
Also, no WiFi limitations!
WHERE ELSE TO VISIT IF YOU HAVE TIME
Spending more time in each place we visited in the South Island would have been a dream.
Additionally, in the South Island, would have loved to visit: Picton, Queen Charlotte Drive (Marlborough Sounds), Nelson and Punakaiki (Pancake Rocks).
And, definitely hoping to see the North Island on a return trip, visiting: Auckland, Coromandel, Raglan, Hamilton, Rotorua, Taupo, and Wellington.
EXTRA NEW ZEALAND TRAVEL TIPS
Language: English is the predominant language.
Safety: New Zealand is as safe as it gets, but as with any destination, don’t leave valuables out in plain sight (e.g. in your car).
Budget: We didn’t track everything down to the cent, but rather have estimates of what we spent over the course of the week we traversed the South Island.
*Shared in GBP (£) because we were both budgeting in Sterling at this phase of the trip
Also, note, these are winter rates. Expect things to be more expensive in summer.
- Accom: £12-20 for dorm bunks; £30-65 for private rooms; £100-175+ for hotels
- Food & drink:
- We spent ~£60 on a week of groceries, which I detail in my budgeting post
- 3x meals out, each under £10 per person
- 1-2x coffee drinks at cafes daily, £2 per person
- Cider/beer/glass of wine out: 2x per person, ranging from £4-6 a drink
- Attractions: Parking everywhere was free, but we splurged on our glacier flight, the sound cruise, and our onsen hot pools + massage night
- On the first two attractions, we scored discounts for winter rates
- Rental Car: £15 per day for 6 days, plus £60 for a week of insurance
- Petrol: Each half tank was £15-20, we’re estimating about £120 total for the week
- Parking: Free, everywhere. Even in Queenstown, you can find free street parking
- SIM: £15 for 2 GB of data
- Flights: £80-100 each way, departing Melbourne and flying into Sydney with EasyJet (we booked far in advance for lower rates, and at generally off times to travel)
Currency: New Zealand Dollar
Most places will take card, but always carry a small amount of cash for remote petrol stops or small cafes/shops.
Visas & Onward Travel: As always, check for your specific country, but visitors from the US and UK do not need a visa for visits up to 90 days. You will, however, need onward proof of travel- this can be a return ticket or one-way ticket to another destination.
New Zealand is notorious for checking onward travel, so make sure you’ve either got a solid plan booked, or have used a site like onwardtravel.com to secure a temporary onward flight. Expedia can also be a good resource if your departure plans aren’t totally set yet- they offer 24-hour 100% cancellation on some flights, which means you could purchase a flight, received a confirmation, and then cancel.
Getting There: We flew into Queenstown’s airport direct from Australia, but if you have more time or are seeing both islands, you could also fly into Auckland in the North, and either fly south or take the ferry crossing.
When to Visit: We visited at the end of August and had a fantastic time- though, admittedly, we were very lucky with the weather. Many of the winter discounts we saw advertised noted increases beginning in September/October.
- Peak Season: November – January
- Off Season: June – August
Tipping: Much like the UK and Oz, it’s not customary.
WiFi Access: We weren’t prepared for how tough this would be. Data was expensive, so we planned on just using WiFi at our hotels/hostels.
Although, we soon discovered that most cap your allowance (it’s common to see caps at 500MB-2GB). Also, we had a tough time finding WiFi in cafes or restaurants, so definitely prepare to be offline.
Packing Necessities: Whenever you visit, you should prepare for a multitude of seasons. Layering is critical, as is having a wind and waterproof outer layer (coat and pants).
I didn’t bring specific hiking shoes, because we visited in winter, and didn’t plan doing long treks. Trainers were just fine for all the places we stopped.
Would also definitely bring bug spray and sunscreen, as well as layers, layers, layers.
Must Try Local Goods: I’ve detailed our shopping list in my budget post, but we had a ton of New Zealand treats recommended to us, which we were delighted to partake in:
- Wine is pretty cheap in new Zealand, and you’ll be able to sample some of the best in the world here. We enjoyed wines from the Marlborough and Central Otago regions, especially Pinot Noirs
- HokeyPokey ice cream: Caramelised honeycomb blended with vanilla
- Pavlova: Meringue, whipped cream, fruit
- L&P: Stands for Lemon & Paeroa, named after the North Island town where it was invented (think: lemony Sprite)
- Manuka honey
- Kumara: Hello, epic sweet potato
- Cookie Time Original Chocolate Chunk
- ANZAC Biscuits: Stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, representative of the troops who fought during World War 1. Wives and mothers used to send biscuits to their sons and husbands during the war, using ingredients like oats and golden syrup that wouldn’t spoil during the journey. Now these cookies (biscuits) are a national favourite
- Pineapple Lumps: Chocolate coated, pineapple flavoured chews
- Cadbury Chocolate Fish: Raspberry marshmallow, coated in chocolate
- Cadbury Perky Nana: Banana taffy, coated in chocolate
- Lamingtons: A sponge cake, coated in raspberry or chocolate and then sprinkled with shaved coconut
- Kiwi Fruit: NZ is one of the world’s top exporters, try the golden or yellow varieties
- Crisps: So many excellent flavours, we loved- Proper Crisps Cider Vinegar & Sea Salt; Grain Waves Honey Mustard; Mexicano Jalapeno; and Bluebird Originals Salt & Vinegar
Have you ever been to New Zealand’s South Island? Is it on your list of places to travel to someday?
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