New Zealand: South Island
We had very high expectations of New Zealand since it’s known to boast a beautiful landscape with loads of outdoor adventures. It did not disappoint! We also went specifically to see: the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) at this time of year as well as the famous Lord of the Rings sights. There are so many LOTR sites that you could very easy spend an entire month visiting just them and probably still have some left over. Instead, we soaked in all the beautiful scenery across different parts of the islands and couldn’t help but be transported back to the scenes in the movies.
The landscape of the South Island is incredible! It reminded us of a slightly nicer version of the Sierra Nevada peaks in California. The main difference is that there’s far more sheep than people there. But, it seemed so similar to the U.S. in many respects that we felt we missed out on the Kiwi spirit. Almost everyone we interacted with in the South Island was a foreigner (from Canada, UK, Europe, US, etc.) in their 20’s or 30’s working in the country. We found out that many come to New Zealand during ski season and love it so much that they apply for visas to stay and work there. We wish we had stayed with host families to get more of a cultural experience just like we did in Switzerland. To add to the familiarity, the food was similar to American cuisine in its quality and diversity, so it was really good everywhere we went.
We stayed for a leisurely amount of time: 15 nights in the South Island and 4 nights in the North Island. We thought we would have required close to 3 weeks, but that schedule would probably suit multi-day hikers, campers, or mountain climbers, rather than the common day hikers like us. For the run-of-the-mill vacationers and extreme sports enthusiasts who want to see the islands highlights, you can do so comfortably with 12–15 nights. Pretty much each of the places listed below have hiking options and 1 or more tracks (3–4 day treks). You can always do only part of the track if you’re up for a more moderate challenge.
Queenstown: Not to be confused with Queensland, Queenstown is a beautiful city on the South Island of New Zealand and is known as the adrenaline capital of the world. It offers bungee jumping, sky diving, hang- and paragliding, parasailing, kayaking, biking, etc. A popular thing to do is a jet boat tour, but we checked out some of the videos and heard about several people dying in the past few years, which scared us out of the experience. We’ve got to keep our limbs intact for the next few months, so we went for a hike instead. Two-and-a-half hours uphill from town took us to our destination: Queenstown Hill. It was so much of an uphill battle through the town and up stairs to get the trail’s head that I was shocked the trail was only just beginning at the trail head! Fortuitously, I found a perfectly shaped walking stick to aid my precious knees on the way up. Then, into the woods we went!
It was a meditative walk as we were enveloped by the hillside forest climbing the graded, yet paved, terrain. At one point after a mountain switchback, the pavement switched to a dirt covered trail with small pine needles littering the ground. When we reached the loop, we were met with a lot more company of happy hikers taking photos of the scenic view at the Basket. After we competed the loop, spots on the descent had great views, too. We killed some time at the Queenstown Gardens.
And headed back to our morning cafe spot for break until our next adventure which was the lake cruise, Million Dollar Cruise, a cost-conscious cruise liner on Lake Wakatipu. The cruise around the lake was a bit chilly with the icy breeze, but thankfully the sunny day warmed us up. We enjoyed the cruise from the rooftop marveling at the clarity and purity of Lake Wakatipu while taking in the remarkable sight of The Remarkables — beautifully carved, snow-capped mountains rising high into the sky. I even tried by hand behind the wheel!
After the cruise, we made our way to Fergburger for a late lunch. The Queenstown Kiwis showed a lot of pride for this burger joint with lines out the door and around the corner, so we just had to try it. In all honesty, In and Out Burger and Smashburger are both better than Fergburger. I recommend the locals should trek out to California to compare notes, though. We had a few many more tasty meals each time we ventured into town. The most worthwhile ones were at Ivy & Lola’s Kitchen + Bar and Taco Medic. Ivy had a great lakefront view and imaginative menu with some flavor combinations that looked odd on paper, but worked well on the palette. And Taco Medic was pretty comparable to any taqueria in California, the carnitas and beef tacos were stellar. But, they were still a notch down from our favorite place in San Diego — soon to be Santa Clara — Puesto.
Milford Sound & Te Anau: Te Anau is the closest town to Milford Sound and about a 2-hour drive away. We could have skipped this sleepy tourist town and not missed much, but it was a great jumping off point to get to the sound. The drive to Milford Sound was beautiful! We even saw this little kea by the side of the road begging for food.
Milford Sound is a definite must-see. Positioned in the vast Fiordland National Park, it’s uninhabited, relatively untouched by humans, and unbelievably beautiful! We took the Southern Discoveries tour since it was on one of the few on a catamaran, but there are tons of other cruise liners, including this vintage one if you want more options.
It was hard to pick a favorite part of the Milford Sound Cruise. Passing so closely over bottle-nosed dolphins, watching the beached seals, seeing scores of waterfalls, the teal color of the seawater (including sailing out the Tasman Sea), and watching the mist roll over the mountains were some of the major highlights of the tour.
On the way back from Milford Sound to Te Anau, we hit some of the main tourist spots. The Chasm Viewing Bridge was an easy 20 minute loop to get there, but the spot was only interesting for its rock formations dissect by the river. Definitely skippable if you’re pressed for time. Some highlights for us were the Hollyford Valley Lookout and The Divide on Routeburn Track.
Also, we stopped at Mirror Lakes, which on a clear day reflect the mountains across the field. Unfortunately, it was not a clear day we got a muddled reflection. Te Anau is the starting point of the famous Kepler Track, a major hiking trail which ends in Milford Sound and takes about 3–4 days to complete. If that’s too much for you, there’s an endless number of hikes to do in this area. We ended up walking a small part of the Kepler Track following the curve of the Lake Te Anau towards the Control Gate.
On our drive out to our next location, we had to visit the River Anduin. Middle Earth’s Gates of Argonath are comprised of two huge statues lining this river in the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Over the river, the Kawarau Suspension Bridge crosses the Kawarau Gorge. The icy blue water colors the river in both fiction and reality. And, it couldn’t get much realer than bungee jumping off a platform on the bridge. So we caught the sights of thrill-seekers snapping like rubber bands after falling down to the riverbed. It was pretty cool!
Wanaka: Our favorite lakeside town on the South Island was Wanaka, a small town with a lot less tourists than Queenstown and Te Anau. There were a bunch of lake activities, like biking the path around the lake, kayaking, etc. Just outside of the city, Rippon Winery is worth the trip because it boasts some of the best views of any winery in the world. Plus, there’s a free tasting for visitors with lovely flowers above the vineyards making for a great photoshoot.
We were there in Spring and went to the Wanaka Lavender Farm. For only $2 NZD per person, you got to enjoy the farm with a bunch of tasty lavender treats in their onsite store and cafe in addition to outdoor games, walking paths, and penned farm animals, including alpacas, boars, baby sheep, and bison. It had beautiful lavender fields (which we’re quite all in bloom yet) and a full rose garden. We also tried lavender chocolate, lavender tea, and lavender honey from the on-site cafe.
Another hiking trail not too far from the farms waited us with picturesque views of the lake and city. Probably our favorite day hike of the entire country.
One hour away from Wanaka and on the way to Franz Josef, we stopped at the Blue Pools Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. It’s an easy 30-minute walk roundtrip through the forest and over a tentative suspension bridge on the Makarora River. I especially loved the ice-blue water and the gray sand on the river shores, which you can easily access on the left side of the second bridge down rock stairs. It’s definitely worth checking out if you are heading to Franz Josef.
Franz Josef: We probably could have skipped this town, but ended up going since time was on our side. It’s about 3–4 hours from Wanaka and 5.5 hours to Tekapo, our next town. We saw the the Fox Glacier from the parking lot and hiked up to Franz Josef Glacier. The glaciers have receded a lot over the years, and both were quite a distance away even with the parking lot view of Fox Glacier. We did the hike to Franz Josef Glacier reaching a final destination roughly 200m from it. You can do helicopter landing tours to get the experience of walking on the glacier itself, which would give you a much better experience, but at a hefty price.
The town of Franz Josef itself is very small, and the only worthwhile experience I had there was stone-carving at the Te Koha Gallery. I chose my stone from a bunch of rough rocks, including the world-famous New Zealand jade and Aotea — found only one place in the world — that place. I created this beautiful pendant during the 3-hour class while getting pretty wet on the stone-sculptor. My stone turned out really well and ended up being my good luck charm. It attracted a native New Zealander from the largest tribes of the South and North Islands at our next stop. She said I must be very lucky to have found and crafted such a beautiful stone because they’re so rare to find. Lucky indeed!
Tekapo: On the drive to Tekapo from Franz Josef keep your eyes out for breathtaking views. The neighboring lake next to Lake Wanaka is called Lake Hāwea, which is a beauty unto itself. But, what it has that its neighbor doesn’t is a stunning reflection of mountains lining the lake.
Further down the road, there’s an outpost with a breathtaking view of the snow-capped Mount Cook (the tallest one of the bunch) and its surrounding mountain range.
The Church of the Good Shepherd is well positioned in front of Lake Tekapo with a scenic mountain background and in fields of pink and purple flowers in the foreground. It’s such a popular spot there’s always a slew of tour buses revolving around throughout the day in addition to brides and grooms taking wedding photos. The lake itself is incredibly beautiful.
This area also has one of the darkest skies in the world with a famous observatory. We specifically visited Tekapo since Mt. John Observatory is supposed to be one of the best places in the world to see the Southern Lights. Unfortunately, due to cloud-cover we missed out on both the 1 am and 9 pm visit on two consecutive nights since they had to be cancelled. Unlucky as we were, we at least enjoyed the daytime sights in this tiny town. Biking halfway around the lake was a really fun experience, especially since we hadn’t biked in years!
Christchurch: The largest city on the South Island was completely devasted by past earthquakes. They had an earthquake in 2011, then another in 2016. In the former a mass exodus of the city’s population deserted it, and they haven’t had the funds to rebuild the city again. Thus, there was construction everywhere, and nothing worthwhile to visit in the city center since much — including the central cathedral — is still being repaired. We stayed only 1 night so we could fly out to Auckland first thing the next morning. It’s a skippable town due to it being so depressed.
We skipped a few places due to their distance, but you might want to consider visiting: Abel Tasman, Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, and Kaikoura. All in all, I definitely want go back to South Island to finish exploring the places we missed and revisit many of our favorite place throughout the quiet countryside. On the other hand, Ash feels it was just so similar to the beauty of the Sierra Nevadas (with the downside of missing a unique culture), that he is content with just the one trip.