It is no wonder that several movies have decided to use New Zealand as their backdrop for the big screen. The stunning green nature is everywhere and wildly diverse. With amazing waterfalls along your drive and exotic birds perched in trees, the beauty surrounds you everywhere.
David and I wanted to see as much of the island as possible. We read blogs, reached out to friends, and asked locals where we should hike to see as much of the agricultural diversity as possible. You could spend a lifetime exploring and hiking new trails. We, unfortunately, didn’t have a lifetime…just a few weeks. We wanted to share with you our top picks, favorite cities, and a few tips to make your time and money go as far as possible.
While touring New Zealand you have two choices: either travel via car and stay the night in hotels/Airbnbs or rent an RV. New Zealand is a great place to RV because unlike Australia you can park anywhere as long as you are self-contained (vehicle doesn’t drop water, grey or any other color). When considering which option to go with weigh out the costs. Renting an RV can be a bit expensive with gas costing more than in the US. Having just come from Australia we were okay taking a break from the camping. Trying to be as affordable as possible we opted to stay in shared spaces through Airbnb or sleep in hostels with bunkbeds.
New Zealand’s roads are almost as pretty as the hikes you will take. This makes the conditions much different than roads in the states. Take your time as you travel the two lane highway, enjoy the curves that will slow you down but offer priceless views. Driving on the left side on the road will feel natural in no time. Just take your time in traffic circles when you get close to towns.
Landing in Christchurch we took time to take in the city and relax before hitting the road a few days later. We fell in love with this small town! With cute cafes around each corner and a city full of people proud to call Christchurch their home.
Christchurch Cathedral – After the devastation in 2011 Christchurch started to rebuild. Some buildings focused on how quickly they could erect while others thought about using resourceful materials. Christchurch Cathedral brought in an architect who specializes in the quickness of building post disaster. His idea was to make a sustainable church out of cardboard, the first in the world. Cardboard tubes form the skeleton and shipping containers along the outside create the meeting rooms. This architectural design allows light to pour into the sanctuary. Stop in and chat with one of the very knowledgeable volunteers.
Cathedral Square – Now that you have seen the re-built church, take a 5 minute walk to the original Cathedral Square. This is the site of the collapsed Christchurch Cathedral which is still in shambles. Recently the public has decided to rebuild on the standing foundation. This square gives you a real visual of how destroyed the city was after the natural disaster.
RE: START Mall – Shopping area located in city center that put shipping containers to good use. With the loss of their pedestrian shopping area in city center the city wanted to find a quick solution to get stores up and running again. Six months after the disaster the mall opened to the public, a cool site to see even if you are not a shopper.
Botanical Gardens/ Canterbury Museum – Take a walk through the botanical gardens. Stop to enjoy the antique boathouse along the Avon River where you can take a guided punting boat tour. Peruse the green houses and see local and exotic plants from around the world. Once your green thumb is fully satisfied take the short walk to the Canterbury Museum. Here you can walk the recreated 1900s Christchurch streets and enjoy a fun flight simulation via Oculus Rift.
- Rolllickin Dessert Cafe – best ice coffee (served with a scoop of gelato – you choose the flavor!)
- Cafe C1 – former post office – transfer tubes are still intact
- Dimitris Greek Food cart – amazing souvlaki for lunch – located at the Re:START mall
- Volentino – great Italian dinner and open late
Take a day trip to Akaroa. This small town is an hour drive from Christchurch. Here you can swim with the Hector Dolphins (the smallest dolphin species), and the only place in the world you will find this adorable mammal.
Prebook a spot with Black Cat Cruises ($160/pp). The water is cold but wet suits/boots are provided along with two guides for a small group. The guides are a wealth of information and they can’t hide their love for animals. These dolphins are well protected leaving the interaction to their terms. We were lucky enough to interact with a few pods while we hung out in the water. Hector dolphins are curious creates so they love to check out what is new in their space.
After your cruise you will be very hungry! Head across the street to Akaroa Fish and Chips and eat like the locals. Lunch comes wrapped in a picnic table size sheet of paper, eat it there or enjoy it seaside, either way don’t forget the tartar sauce.
A filming location for the last scene of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Step into Prince Caspian’s shoes as he fights the witch, climbing over and around giant rock formations. Also a great spot to simply enjoy a picnic and watch bolder climbers jump from one rock formation to the next. A short walk from the carpark makes it perfect for families or those looking for an easy day trip. Castle Hill is a little over a two hour drive from Akaroa. Two hours is all you will need to explore this area.
A bit of a tourist hub but still a great stop on your drive around. Start your day off at Church of the Good Shepard, arrive early to avoid the crowds. A wonderful place for photos and to take in the sunrise.
Walk across the bridge (to the left of the church) and head into city center. Catch an early lunch at one of the restaurants overlooking the water. There is also a grocery store if you would like to assemble your own meal and enjoy it on one of the public picnic tables. Either way you can’t go wrong. The views are spectacular
After lunch jump in your car and head to Mt John. After a 45 minute hike up you can enjoy a bird’s eye view of Lake Tepako with an ice-cream in hand from the small cafe at the top. Due to the lack of light pollution this area makes for a fantastic place to check out the night sky. Take a tour and get the chance to view the night sky through the observatory or drive a bit out of town yourself and enjoy discovering on your own.
If you are looking to recharge before hitting the road head to Tekapo Springs. With several pools to choose from the perfect one is waiting for you. With the water coming from melted glaciers it is a unique experience that New Zealand has to offer.
Aoraki National Park
With views of mountains the whole way into Mt.Cook you have to pull over to take photos. There are only a few places to stay once you arrive in the park. We recommend making reservation before you arrive. We opted for the most affordable option and booked two bunk beds at The Hermitage Hotel. There are multiple accommodation options if sharing a room is not your thing. We would recommend driving in and spending the night to get an early start on the trails when they are less crowded. We also enjoyed a night of star watching with limited light pollution allowing us our first glimpse of the Milky Way.
Getting an early start we headed to Hooker Valley track, a hike known for its hanging bridges and lake view at the end. This trail is not for the faint of heart with high winds swinging the hanging bridges a hundred feet above rushing glacier water. Our breath was taken away as we braced the sides of the bridge making sure our feet didn’t sweep out from underneath us. The trail otherwise is an easy path that is well marked leading you to amazing views of glaciers at the end, well worth getting wind swept for.
We unfortunately didn’t have time to get another hike in but would highly recommend hitting one more trail before heading out.
Heading south our next stop was Mt Pisa for a day of working on the farm. There are many opportunities in the south island to spend a night on a family farm. Find one that fits you! You could be a farm hand for a few days or just stop in to enjoy a home cooked meal. David and I have dreams of becoming farmers ourselves, so we soaked in all the knowledge shared. Read our full post on our experience at Sue and Peter’s sheep farm.
Queenstown is often the first town people think of when exploring the south island. Known as the adventure capital of the world thrill seekers will want to sign up for a bungee jumps here. You can choose between the world’s first commercial bungee spot (Kawarau Bridge) or head to the highest bungee (Nevis Bungy) in NZ at 134 meters. Either way your adrenaline will rush as you convince your body to take the plunge.
The food scene is pretty amazing in Queenstown. Start your food tour at Taco Medic a food truck turned into small restaurant (with only outdoor seating). It was raining when we stopped by so we took our tacos to go and headed to the harbor. A boat is permanently docked at the pier offering drinks and welcoming you to bring your own food.
Next up? Fergburger! Wait until you are very hungry and enjoy a burger the size of your face, no kidding! Go all out and order a Coke and onion rings on the side. Trust us it is worth the chloric intake! To avoid the lines call your order in. With queues often exceeding 30 minutes you can save yourself the time and call ahead.
After all that amazing savory food head to Remarkable Sweet Shop. Try their homemade fudge and some unique New Zealand treats, all served up in an old school feeling candy shop. I recommend pineapple lumps and big fish, both marshmallow like textures covered in chocolate. You can’t go wrong!
Don’t spend too much time in this big city. With so much to explore this town showcases just a sliver of the beauty that New Zealand has to offer. We recommend booking your excursions enjoying a meal or two and heading out.
On your way out of Queenstown stop by Arrowtown for a stroll through the picturesque old mining town. Save room for lunch here or grab a hokey pokey ice-cream cone to go.
The furthest south we went, Te Anau is a lakeside town with sweet cafes and more than one grocery store. David and I were thrilled by the options and happy to spend two days taking in the beauty of the lake.
We had pre-booked our excursions at one of the hundreds of tourists’ information booths in Queenstown. You can also wait and book once you arrive in Te Anau. The local i-sites are very knowledgeable ensuring you are booked on the best excursions offered.
The drive into Milford Sound took just under two hours from Te Anua. With spectacular waterfalls popping up along bends you will be shaking your head in disbelief. Our car was even sprayed by the waterfall as we drove past! In Milford Sound you need to get on the water. Not only could you luck out and see adorable sea life but the views of rock cliffs reflecting into the water is a must.
If boat rides were rated like hotels we took the hostel option. The food was bland and the boat was simple. No matter how luxury or basic you decide to go you will be happy you spent time immersed in the vastness on these rock faces. If you didn’t get enough views on the boat make sure to leave time to do a hike before heading back to Te Anau.
Tip: Grab your rain jacket! With this area receiving 7 meters of rain a year you can expect a bit of mist from the falls and possibly some rain.
While in Te Anau there is one more boat tour you should take. This one doesn’t offer the spectacular views but a unique experience none-the-less. Book a glowworm cave excursion with Real Journeys ($60/pp). The tour is a bit over two hours. If you time it right you can leave as the sun is setting giving you great photo-ops on the boat ride to the caves. Once you arrive you will be divided into small groups and told a bit about the life cycle of glowworms before stepping onto a smaller boat. The quietness of the boat ride is entrancing and in a few moments you will notice small lights dancing across the ceiling of the cave. The lights will fill the small space that surrounds you giving you the illusion of the expansive night sky.
Franz Josef & Fox Glacier
With beautiful posters around the south island depicting hikers walking across an endless glacier with ice shoes and a pick in hand, I was anxious to have a go at an icy trek. However the reality is that these hikes start off with a helicopter ride to get you to a desired location with the illusion that ice picks may be necessary. With many years spent in the mid-west’s extreme winters we decided this was not where we wanted to invest $900 for the two of us to take an icy walk.
The glaciers of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are residing. I want you all to be clear that the photo from 1970 will be very different than the photos your iPhone will be taking. This does not mean it’s not worth a visit. It still is a glacier. You may just want to lower your expectation. You will not be walking or touching the remains of either Fox or Franz Josef (unless you hop on a helicopter).
Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are just 20 minutes apart. If you have time for just one we recommend Franz Josef. With greater views of the iceberg and a nice (easy) trail leading the way you will be glad you took this trail, even if it is filled with tourists. Fox Glacier was amazing for the iceberg runoff. With the ability to climb down to the river you can actually find chunks of the iceberg floating in the water. We were so thrilled to touch a piece of it. However, Fox glacier is a bit dirtier with dirt having left a light residue on the top of the white snow.
If you are interested in spotting Kiwis, head to West Coast Wildlife Center. This wildlife center is working to increase the kiwi population by giving eggs a safe place to hatch and grow until they can be released into the wild. Learn about the risks that pose a threat to these endangered birds and why hatching the eggs under a watchful eye is so important.
Since they are nocturnal the chances of seeing them in their natural habitat is rare, but not impossible. If you are interested in seeing them in nature ask the wildlife center for advice on where you may spot them.
Able Tasman National Park
Enjoy a hike along the coast at Able Tasman National Park. Arrive early and snag a (very bumpy) ride on their water taxi to your trail head. The water taxi operates at different times depending on the season. Make sure to arrive early to book your spot. David and I hiked along the Coast Track giving us a nice 13km hike. There are some nice climbs at the beginning that will lend to great views before you descend into a forested area. The varied landscape on these well-kept trails was a treat. The Coast Track is over 60km in total. If you are interested in an overnight adventure book a night at one of their huts or pop a tent at one of their campsites. Overnight accommodations book up fast so plan ahead if you plan to go a multiple day hike.
For more information on bookings and time tables check out their website
There is so much to do around New Zealand that you really should stick to hikes and small cities where the uniqueness of this country is alive and well. We did however stop in Nelson for a night to get a taste of the urban life. If you are considering this stop, don’t waste your time. With a quirky downtown and overpriced restaurants you will be wishing you had spent the day hiking. However, if you find yourself here head to Founders Heritage Park. All the historical buildings of the town were places in this small community. Pay a small entrance fee to walk around the old bakery, church, war plane, and much more. Stop for lunch at Founders Brewery. The history of the brewery is interesting and the flight of beer was enjoyed by David.
Marlborough Wine Country
To top off your time in the south island head into Marlborough wine country where sauvignon blanc is king. Our two favorite spots are not to be missed. For a great tasting experience stop by Te Whare Ra (TWR), a family run business where the quality of the conversation is just as good as the wine. If I ever have a wine cellar, their wine will be prevalent. For lunch head over to Rock Ferry, make a reservation to insure your spot in the garden. Enjoy the view and make sure to order a cheese board with your local bottle of wine.
Getting to the north island
If you have the time to head up to the north island take a ferry, the ride is really pretty (leaving from Picton) and is affordable at $55/pp. We took the Interislander, with a cafe, a couple of dining spots and a small movie theater you will have more than enough to do to fill the four hours.
South Island amazed us at each bend in the road. If you have additional time chat with locals or stop by an i-site to discovery more trails, see amazing birds, and run into countless picture perfect locations. New Zealand has no wrong turn. Enjoy the journey you take.
- get groceries at pac n save (much cheaper than other local options)
- places close early (cafes 4pm and shops 5:30pm)
- information booths are called i-sites – visit one in each city for up to date information
- book tours through Bookme for cheaper tickets
- local “fast food” shops serve amazing fish sandwiches
- keep your camera out… once you put it away you will want to reach for it again