We’ve been in the North Island for most of our trip so far. Since both of us are pansies, we wanted to avoid the South Island for most of the winter because the weather is generally much harsher there.
According to New Zealanders we’ve chatted to, the North Island rarely gets snow, even in winter, but pretty much the entirety of the South Island is covered. Super pretty to see, not so practical for living in or getting about.
And, yeah, if I wanted snow, I can get that at home.
So, we thought, while it’s still summer, we’d have a quick whistle-stop tour of some of the main things we wanted to see in the South Island.
That’s not to say that we won’t revisit, because we absolutely will, and there are quite a few places we didn’t get to see on this trip – Dunedin, Milford Sound, and Invercargill to name a few.
Duration: 2 nights
Accommodation: Breakfree on Cashel
Highlights: street art
We flew from Wellington to Christchurch because it was quicker and cheaper than renting a car and getting the ferry across Cook Strait. But, that is an option, too, if you’re coming from the north.
Flying into Christchurch had the wow factor. Nearing the ground, we could see how the main city stretches out on the flat between two ranges of hills. Landscapes are created and changed by volcanic and tectonic activity the world over, but it was strikingly obvious to see here.
If you’re wondering why no pics from the plane, it’s because I was busy digging my nails into the armrest. We were on a very small plane (it had PROPELLORS!) so my attention was focused elsewhere. I am not a good flier. Beautiful all the same, though.
You’ll be aware that Christchurch was absolutely devastated by an earthquake in 2011. What was quite emotional to see was how much they are still recovering from that devastation. Buildings stand in disrepair, lots lay vacant where clearly there were buildings before, people work out of storage containers, and the streets are quiet.
I can’t describe exactly why, but I loved Christchurch. B seems to think it’s because it’s the only place I’ve found an H&M so far.
We spent hardly any time there and, for one of the days we weren’t in the city at all, but I loved the resilience of the place. Cracked walls and public spaces are covered in the most beautiful street art I have ever seen. Maybe there was no special intent behind the artwork, but I can’t help feel like it shows strength.
Our hotel had a decent parking rate of $15 per night (about £7.90 at current exchange). However, we had a bit of a disaster with our car rental company in that they forgot to bring us a car. Our flight landed about 7pm, so it was after hours and there wasn’t anything we could do but to get the bus from the airport to the bus station which, conveniently, was 5 minutes’ walk to our hotel.
Slightly stressful as neither of us had data we could use abroad to find out where to go, or which bus to get, so we had to rely on Kiwi kindness, which is absolutely abundant, to guide us.
Duration: 1 day
Highlight: whale watching! Maybe the chippy we got afterwards….
We finally got our rental car the next day which, annoyingly, delayed our trip to Kaikoura. I would love to have spent more time there but, by the time we arrived, we only had time to do whale watching.
I could’ve been stressed but that’s the travel experience, right? Stuff goes wrong, roll with it.
One of the pricier experiences I’ve had so far at $300 for 2, but also one of the best. If you were to ask me what my highlight of travelling has been so far, whale watching in Kaikoura would be it.
Touted as the best place to see marine wildlife year-round because of its unique coastline and ocean environment, Kaikoura was also greatly affected by a huge earthquake (actually bigger than the Christchurch one at 7.8 magnitude) in November 2016. One piece of coastline actually moved 5.5 metres, which is just crazy.
After purchasing your tickets for whale watching, you take a short bus trip to the marina. Our driver was explaining how much the people of Kaikoura appreciate visitors while they’re recovering as a community.
The driver, and the boat crew, especially our ‘MC’ Samantha, were amazing, and completely made our experience. You’re refunded 80% if you don’t see a whale, so it’s relatively low-risk.
I can’t say in words what it was like to be so close to a teenage humpback whale, dolphins, baby fur seals, and an albatross in the space of about 3 hours, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking. I’ve also posted a quick video to my Instagram of Mr Whale bobbing about in front of us, so do check that out too. I’m desperate to go back and attempt to see a blue whale.
The drive to Kaikoura is beautiful, too. We drove along state highway 1, which had only just reopened in October 2017 after the earthquake the previous year. We returned that night to our hotel in Christchurch, ready for the next leg of our South Island road trip.
Duration: 1 day
Highlight: Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki
This is definitely the most beautiful stretch of road we have ever driven along. Every country is beautiful in its own way but New Zealand really took our breath away that day.
The lakes were stunningly blue and framed by beautiful alpine scenery. I have never seen water so clear, yet so blue at the same time. It was perfectly azure and made me wish I had a better camera (or was a better photographer) to capture it.
When we finally arrived at Mount Cook, our amazement peaked again. It was unbelievable to see snow-capped mountains and a glacier within walking distance when the temperature on the ground was so scorching hot.
Admittedly, the appeal for me was that Mount Cook is supposedly Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. Although, someone has later told me this isn’t true – any fellow LOTR geeks confirm please?
I’ve since found out that Lake Pukaki which stretches out before the mountains, is Lake Town in The Hobbit.
Either way, this national park was like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life, and it completely cemented my love for the South Island.
Duration: 2 nights
Highlight: people-watching along the lake
After a further 6-hour drive, we arrived in Queenstown. We stayed in an AirBnb with possibly the best view around (first picture below here).
First things first, Queenstown is expensive. Like, ridiculously so. You’d have to go down the hostel route if you wanted to stay here on a strict budget, and book in advance.
Queenstown is a vibrant tourist town. Full of backpackers, students, travellers like us, and people on holiday, the main streets are busy and the queues for restaurants can get pretty long.
Queenstown is the place to ski during the winter but is just as busy during summer months, attracting mountain-bikers and water-sport enthusiasts. It’s definitely somewhere to go if you’re into the more extreme, adventurous aspect of travelling this beautiful country.
We were quite content to wander the shore of the lake, taking in the scenery and fresh air, watching the boats cruise around, couples on jet-skis, and someone having a go at one of those water jet-pack things.
As a tourist-centric place, there are hundreds of day trips and tours leaving from Queenstown every day. One thing I really wanted to do was visit Milford Sound while we were there. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time in the end because it really needed a full day and we didn’t have it to spare. So, I would recommend adding an extra day to do this if it appeals.
That’s one reason for us to head back to the South Island one day.
I do want to mention a couple places we ate here. The first was Rehab, serving very fresh and super healthy salads and lunches, with tons of vegan options available. On the opposite end of the scale, I thought it would be fair to let B, who is a huge carnivore, get a fix by going to a steakhouse for dinner.
I kid you not, one of the best veggie options I’ve had. I had a mixed veggie grill which was basically a ton of veg (broccoli, carrots, potatoes etc.) glazed in yummy garlicky-ness and topped with grilled halloumi. Delicious. Also, we had this giant garlic bread between us. Literally a loaf of bread.
Duration: 1 night
Accommodation: Chateau Franz
Highlight: the drive and the forest walk
We drove up the west coast from Queenstown to glacier country. The roads were lined with native bush and waterfalls every few miles. Although you’re driving for hours on end, it really doesn’t feel like it with so much natural beauty around you, and the roads are so quiet. This is one of the main differences I’ve found in the South Island.
On our way, we stopped off at the roadside lookout for Lake Hawea, which I would recommend. It’s not the worst backdrop for a picnic!
When we arrived at Fox glacier. We drove up to the forest lookout to get a distant glimpse of the ice, then headed along the river trail to get another look through a clearing in the trees.
The best way I can describe it is random. It is completely random to be standing in 26-degree heat, surrounded by green, and straight ahead of you is a huge block of ice.
Further along and we found Franz Josef glacier. You can actually walk it, but we chose to do the woodland trail and just get a good view instead.
We weren’t dressed or equipped for glacier walking and we decided it wouldn’t be safe. If you are planning to walk the glacier, check beforehand exactly what you’ll need and what the conditions are (try this website).
We stayed in Franz Josef which I wouldn’t be in a rush to do again. We’re not fans of hostels and there wasn’t a lot for me to eat in the few restaurants there.
Picton and Interislander
Duration: 1 day
Highlight: Malborough Sounds
Picton is a small but busy place, as it’s part of the gateway between the North and South Island. I fully recommend getting the Interislander ferry if you’re heading up north. That’s what we did after dropping off our rental car.
It takes around 3 hours and you sail through beautiful Malborough sounds. You’re surrounded by tiny, hilly islands, and you can stand out on the deck and watch for wildlife. Our ferry was a late one, and it got dark quickly, so I’d love to do it again on a sunny day.