When I started planning our New Zealand road trip it became very clear that 2 weeks was not enough time to do justice to the South Island. We are not rush around travelers and we don’t like to drive for hours every day. We love to discover new places and spend some time exploring our destination.
Due to my husband’s work commitments in Christchurch we also had to work around some specific dates. Which we did. And then the dates changed. This meant something we really wanted to do had to be cut from the itinerary. The itinerary I originally wanted just wouldn’t fit in the dates we had available, and then I had to do some major adaptation to work around the dates we needed to be in Christchurch.
So what was the outcome? The outcome was a fantastic couple of weeks in New Zealand’s South Island plus we have things to come back and visit another time.
Our trip began in Queenstown. Flying into Queenstown should be on everyone’s bucket list. It is just spectacular. The plane also dips and weaves between the mountain ranges so it might not be the best flight for the nervous flyer. It certainly makes your arrival into the adventure capital of New Zealand exciting, and gives you just a taste of the spectacular scenery to come.
Our accommodation was at the Best Western Cranbury Court. They are small apartments perched on the hillside just outside the central area of Queenstown. It was an easy walk into town and there is also a supermarket 5 minute walk the other way. The best part of our accommodation was the view. Looking straight off our deck we had a fantastic view of the Gondola going up Ben Lomond and those crazy people paragliding off the top. Steve decided he wanted to be one of those crazy people and we booked him in for the next day. Of course paragliding is subject to weather conditions and the next day it was too windy at the top. The following day it rained, and by then we were due to move on to the next stop. It was pretty disappointing but there is not much you can do about the weather. Little did we know how often we would say those words in the coming days.
Now even though paragliding was off the itinerary, there is no shortage of things to do in Queenstown. It might have been too windy to jump off the top but going up the Skyline Gondola was exciting enough for me. I can imagine the queue can be pretty long at times but it wasn’t too bad for us. Due to the wind we couldn’t all go in the one gondola so it was time to draw straws and see who got stuck with Mum. (You know, the one who doesn’t like heights too much). Sorry Jonas, your stuck with me. The view from the Gondola was pretty distracting I have to admit.
As you can see in the bottom right hand corner of the above photo, you can even bungy jump from the top. Queenstown has a number of bungy options if you are inclined to fling your body off high towers. This bungy is called The Ledge Bungy and rather than having a flimsy cord around your ankles, you are in a body harness which increases your bungy jumping style options. We had some fun watching people run and jump. And listened to their screams.
More fun awaits when you arrive at the top of the Gondola. The Skyline Luge is a fun activity for kids (and grown ups!). You catch the chairlift to the top then whiz down the luge tracks before doing it all again. When you are finished with the Luge you can recharge the energy bank at the Jelly Belly Store or the Market Kitchen. We are happy to fully endorse the ice cream from the Market Kitchen.
With Queenstown as a base there are a number of options for day trips, walks, adrenaline adventure – take your pick, Queenstown has it all. Day 2 had us heading to the gold mining tourist village of Arrowtown – the Shotover Jet is on the way for your daily adrenaline fix. Once arriving in Arrowtown, we enjoyed exploring the restored Chinese village and the Arrow River walk before heading to the tree lined main street. This is a working village so there is shopping to be done and food and drinks abound. Blessed with another beautiful blue sky day we found a grassy park area and enjoyed our lunch from one of New Zealand’s many bakeries.
Now there is an institution in Queenstown you just have to visit. Whenever we told friends we were heading to Queenstown they would say “You have to go to Fergburger!”. As we wandered the streets of Queenstown Fergburger wasn’t hard to miss. There was always a queue of people out the front and working it’s way along the street, and when I saw always I mean at any time of the day, not just at lunch and dinner time. To be honest I looked at the queue and thought the wait could not possibly be worth it. Steve was more determined than me and thanks to the internet and the ability to look at the menu online, he took our orders and hopped in line. The kids and I headed to the Odyssey Sensory Maze. I don’t have any photos I can show you, I can only tell you there was some hysterical laughing and things happened in there that we talked and laughed about for days. We then met up in the grassed areas around Lake Wakatipu and proceeded to eat the best burgers we had ever had. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely, especially if you can get someone else to queue while you go and have fun.
The next day we were on the road again for the 1 hour drive to Glenorchy which claims to be one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand – a pretty big call. There is so much activity and fun to be had in Queenstown many people don’t even venture out this way. I’m not someone who visits a destination because it was in a movie, although apparently many people do if the amount of Lord of the Rings tours is anything to go by. But when you are selling to your 12 year old daughter going for a drive to admire the scenery, knowing that Taylor Swift filmed part of one of her video’s around Glenorchy was a great selling point. The drive didn’t disappoint, the scenery was spectacular.
Day 4 – Today it was time to say goodbye to Queenstown and make our way to Milford Sound via Te Anau. Unfortunately the weather had taken a turn for the worse and we had a couple of hours drive ahead of us. I am pretty sure there was some spectacular scenery on the way but it was too foggy and wet for us to leave the car. I was glad we had decided to overnight in Te Anau before making the trip into Milford Sound. It is about 2 hours drive to Te Anau and another 2 into Milford Sound but you are going to want to make plenty of stops on the way. There is also no where to stay in Milford Sound so it is another 2 hours drive back to Te Anau (without stops).
Once we arrived in Te Anau the rain had cleared and we were able to explore this small town. We stopped by the Fiordland Cinema where they show current release movies as well as the special feature Ata Whenua which will get you in the mood for the amazing scenery you will see in the Fiordlands of the South Island, New Zealand.
A not to be missed attraction in Te Anau is a visit to the Glow worm Caves. I have visited a few caves in my time but have to say this one is pretty magical. The tour takes you on a cruise on Lake Te Anau before you reach the caves. You then make your way into the grotto on foot and by boat within the cave until you reach those shimmering glow worms.
The next day we were on our way to Milford Sound. We had decided to do a tour so the driver didn’t miss out on the scenery on the way and we were so glad we did. There are multiple stops on the way in and back. Although you would still see them all if you drove yourself I think it is a much more enjoyable trip to spend the day with a bus driver who knows the road. We opted for a small group tour with Cruise Milford and when we saw the large coaches of tourists we were glad we did. That said, they all go to the same places and see the same things, we just preferred the smaller operation. If you are not used to driving on the left hand side of the road on narrow winding roads then I would definitely suggest doing a tour and not self-driving.
Once you reach Milford Sound it is time to find your cruise boat and head into the Sound. Needless to say, you realise just how small you are when you are next to those mountains.
Day 6 – Another rainy day saw us heading north again to Wanaka. Somehow we had managed a beautiful day for our trip to Milford Sound which we were very grateful for. We drove over the Cardona / Crown ranges which is a windy narrow road. I am sure the views would have been magnificent if it wasn’t for the fog and rain. We made our way to our accommodation at Wanaka Luxury Apartments and although it was wet and rainy still, our spirits instantly lifted. Our apartment truly was luxury – I may have been a little over excited to see the built in coffee machine in the kitchen. The hot tub was a highlight, and what better to do on a cold rainy day than sit in the hot tub, right?
Day 7 – Today the rain stopped and we made our way to Puzzling World, one of the great activities to do with kids in Wanaka. And we adults quite enjoyed it too. I have to say Puzzling World is one of the best attractions of its size I have been too. We had a great time making our way around the different puzzles etc inside and then spent a while solving the outdoor maze. I just try to stick with someone and not get lost!
We had lunch in cafe area of Puzzling World and enjoyed some more puzzle time with the puzzles that are scattered amongst the tables in the cafe. As we looked out the window of the cafe we saw Mt Iron and decided it needed to be conquered. So we made like mountain goats and scrambled our way up. (Maybe that was just me). You can walk up one side and down the other, returning to the car park area. The views from the top of Mt Iron are definitely worth making the climb.
Day 8 – A lovely day in Wanaka, a Sunday with beautiful blue skies. We walked from our accommodation along the foreshore of Lake Wanaka and explored the Sunday markets. After lunch we made our way to Glendhu Bay and a short walk around the bay area. There are a number of other walks we would have liked to have done and realised this was one thing we had overlooked in the planning. If you enjoy the outdoors there is no better place to walk – one of the bonuses is there are no snakes in New Zealand! Next time we will definitely research this better and allow plenty of time to soak in the scenery in some of the great walks available.
Day 9 – All good things must come to an end so on yet another rainy day we left Wanaka to make our way to Mt Cook / Aoraki. Just as you drive out of Wanaka is the Tranport and Toy Museum, an amazing collection of toys, vehicles and planes and worthy of a stop.
The drive to Mt Cook takes you past Lake Pukaki and its glacier blue water. Except if it is raining. Come on New Zealand – we can get this weather at home! We were staying overnight at the Hermitage Hotel in a chalet with a plan to spend the afternoon walking to the Hooker Valley. Unfortunately the weather was not playing nice. However the days are long in the South Island of New Zealand in Summer so we headed out for a walk later that evening when there was a break in the weather. We didn’t make the 3 hour return trip to Hooker Valley but made it to the first swinging bridge. The Sir Edmund Hilary Centre in the Hermitage Hotel is a good way to fill in some time if the weather is bad, there is a small museum as well as a planetarium.
Day 10 – Today we were excited about heading to the Glacier Explorers trip to Tasman Lake, one of the only accessible glacier lakes with icebergs. Except more rain. We needed to catch a bus to where the boat left and we were all ready and loaded onto the bus when we were advised the trip had been cancelled due to the weather. We were majorly disappointed about this one, but what can you do about the weather right? Onwards and upwards we left Mt Cook and made our way to Lake Tekapo, staying overnight at Mantra Lake Tekapo apartments. In the afternoon we walked around and visited the church of the good shepherd – a obligatory photo stop in Tekapo.
Day 11 – If there was a day I could have spent somewhere else on this trip, this was it, we could easily have squeezed it into the day before with only 1 night stay. Or use Tekapo as a base to visit Mt Cook although it would require some back tracking. We spent the morning at Tekapo Springs, in summer they have a large waterslide set up, in winter this is an ice rink. Finally another blue sky summer day and our schedule meant we were spending it in hot pools. We did enjoy our time there and can imagine what a beautiful spot it is with snow on the mountains in winter.
As we had missed much of Mt Cook the previous days we had booked a helicopter ride in for the afternoon. Unfortunately they stopped the helicopter flights about an hour before ours due to the wind, on the ground there was only a light breeze but apparently windy at higher altitudes. With our afternoon now free we made our way up to Mt John Observatory. This is one of the best places in the world for star gazing and if you have time and the weather is in your favour then a star gazing tour would be a great thing to do if it is in your budget. You pay a small fee to drive up to the observatory and there is a little cafe at the top and some great views around the Tekapo area. It was on top of Mt John we discovered the helicopter company did know what they were talking about and yes it was indeed quite windy.
Day 12 – Strictly speaking this isn’t one day in Christchurch. Due to work commitments we were in Christchurch for 5 nights, one or two nights would be a good amount of time to explore. There was a major Earthquake in Christchurch in 2011 and in 2016 the rebuilding is still continuing. Many streets are still closed off and the central city area still feels like a ghost town. The Re-Start mall was fascinating with a shopping mall built out of shipping containers. In fact shipping containers feature still in many parts of Christchurch to prevent rock falls. We visited the Quake Museum which gives a real insight into what the residents of Christchurch went through, and are still experiencing. While shopping in the Re-Start Mall I discovered a booked called Quake Cats. It is filled with stories of cats and how they were affected by the earthquake. There is also a Quake Dogs book, we would read a story or 2 each night with the kids and found it a great way to gain a better understanding of what the Christchurch residents went through in an easy to read format.
Whilst in Christchurch we also visited the Orana Wildlife Park and the International Antarctic Centre – both can easily be fitted into one day. The Antarctic Centre is right near the airport so could be visited on arrival or if you have time to spare before your flight departs.
Days 13-14 – Our last days in the South Island of New Zealand were spent in Hanmer Springs, an easy drive from Christchurch in just under 2 hours. We had planned to go llama trekking here – but you guessed it, more rain! The Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools were perfect in this weather. There are an abundance of different pools as well as a lazy river and waterslides for the kids.
Our flight home departed from Christchurch in the late afternoon so we spent a leisurely morning in Hanmer Springs before heading back to the airport. As I read back through this I realise so many things in our trip were affected by the weather and how hard this must be on the tourist/adventure businesses. My advice would be to book in ahead of time but be prepared to reschedule. What can you do about the weather? Make the most of it and experience the South Island of New Zealand in all her beauty and moods. We will definitely be back – we may even head back for a winter trip!