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South Island New Zealand

The South Island of New Zealand is a more popular tourist destination than the North Island. An ideal amount of time in the South Island would be at least two weeks. If you are thinking of doing any over night hikes especially for the Milford track, do remember to make bookings at least six months in advance because it is extremely popular during the Great Walks Season. Initially I had booked for the Routeburn track. Unfortunately, due to an accident in October, I was physically unable to complete a 3D2N hike so I had to make last minute changes to my itinerary. As it was over Christmas period, most of the accommodations were fully booked in Queenstown or ridiculously expensive, we ended up staying at Cardona Alpine Resort which has got to be one of the best places I’ve stayed in New Zealand! Here I am sharing my South Island itinerary, hope that you’ll enjoy it as much as I did! 

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Destination

Duration of stay

Distance to next destination

Picton

2 nights (N)

~279km

Waipara


1N

~280km

Hokitika Gorge

Passing through via Arthur’s Pass

~134km

Franz Josef Glacier


1N

~25km

Fox Glacier

1N

~262km

Wanaka

2N

~20km

Cadrona

1N

~55km

Queenstown

2N

~231km

Te Anau

2N

~227km

Overnight cruise in Doubtful Sound

1N

 

Owaka

1N

~354km

Mount Cook Village

2N

~331km

Christchurch

1N

 

Day 1 (Blenheim – Picton) 

Arrive at Blenheim Airport and begin your South Island Adventure with a hit of alcohol. The Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine producing region. It is the undisputed home of Sauvignon Blanc and with cellar doors clustered closely together, it makes it quick and easy to hop between each. If you are thinking of dining in some of the restaurants, do remember to make reservations because it gets booked out very quickly. We had a delicious lunch at Saint Clair Family Estate before getting all drunk and merry at the cellar doors. If you are interested in Cherry picking, along the way from Blenheim to Picton, you would pass by an Orchard called Cherry Bank and allows you to pick your own cherries. You can also buy grade 1 and 2 cherries from the orchard shop. 

Day 2 (Picton – Queen Charlotte Track day walk)

The Queen Charlotte Track is a very popular coastal walk that is relatively easy. There are guided tours for it and the full walking track is 71km one way and it takes 3-5 days to complete. If you are thinking of walking the whole track, a pass is required which can be purchased from Anakiwa or online. But if you are walking to the lookout or Davis Bay Campsite, not pass is required. I found this walk more scenic than the Coromandel Bay Coastal Walk because the view of the sea is always present and there are only a few areas that are not shaded in the bush. Remember to pack lunch and you can have a beautiful seaside picnic. Alternatively, Picton offers many outdoor activities such as kayaking and guided tours for Queen Charlotte Track. Take some time to walk around this picturesque seaside town especially during sunset.

Day 3 (Picton – Waipara)

I broke the journey by staying one night in Waipara. We stayed in a beautiful place called Annie’s Loft and Studio. Waipara is another region just 45 minutes north of Christchurch that is famous for wine – pinot noir and riesling. We visited Greystone Wines and got very merry tasting the wine. 

Day 4 (Waipara – Hokitika Gorge – Franz Josep Glacier)

We drove towards Hokitika Gorge passing through Arthur’s Pass. It’s a beautiful drive with a couple of scenic stops along the way. We stopped at Kura Tawhiti/ Castle Hill and happened to chance upon a free guided walk of the place. Kura Tawhiti means “the treasure from a distant land” and this limestone rocks still house some carvings from distant ancestors. This habitat is also the site to protect the Castle Hill Buttercup plant. Our guide provided us with an informational session on how the ancestors used to live in those limestone rocks and the types of native vegetation in the area.

After the one hour tour, we drove to Arthur’s Pass for a lunch break. From Arthur’s Pass we headed towards Hokitika Gorge. Please be prepared when visiting any beach or sand places in New Zealand. The sandflies are absolute killers and pests. I was almost eaten alive by them – they bit through my yoga tights (and I was wearing a thick pair of tights). So bring and spray yourself with loads of insect repellent. Hokitika Gorge is a very interesting place. The colour of the water is milky due to the combination os melted glacier ice, rock flour and river water. This walk is only 650m (one way) and I didn’t spend much time there due to the sandflies but it is worth the visit. After I had recovered from the sandflies bites, we drove to Franz Josef Glacier for the night. 

Day 5 (Franz Josep Glacier – Fox Glacier)

There are a couple of things to do at Franz Josep Glacier. If you would like to walk on the glacier, you need to book a guided tour or a held-hike. These tours are very expensive so we just did what most tourists did, walk to the terminal face of the glacier. Its a very interesting walk with sign posts throughout indicating where the glacier was 100 years ago… 50 years ago… 10 years ago. Gives you the grim reality of global warming.

For lunch, we drove to Lake Matheson and had a beautiful lunch at the cafe. If you like to see the reflections of the lake, best to go at dawn or dusk when the lake is calm. We were not lucky enough to see the reflections of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman from the lake. However, we had a really good lunch at the cafe and a nice gentle walk around the lake.

After the nice gentle walk around the lake, we were all ready for Fox Glacier. Warning: the walk to Fox Glacier is very steep and challenging. I was struggling with it and by the time I got to the Glacier, I was perspiring like crazy. If you only had time for one glacier, I would recommend Franz Josef because it’s friendlier to get there.

Day 6 (Fox Glacier – Wanaka)

On our way to Wanaka, we stopped at Haast Blue Pools which was about 122km away from Fox Glacier. You’ll get to see many pools of turquoise blue water on the drive toward Haast Blue Pools. The colour of the water is due to the cold crystal clear glacier water. It’s absolutely beautiful. There are many tourists at the blue pools and quite a number them were swimming in the freezing cold water. The walk is an easy 1.5km return but be prepared against sandflies as this place is infested with them.

From Haast blue pools, its another 73km to Wanaka.The drive towards Wanaka was so scenic that we kept pulling over to take photos.

Day 7 (Wanaka)

Wanaka is like the quieter version of Queenstown. I actually prefer it to Queenstown because it’s not as busy. The lake is huge and there are many water activities available. We went to a farmers market in town and bought some homemade chutney and jams. If you are into hiking, Roy’s Peak is a popular hiking spot. We gave it a miss due to my injury but we did a hike called Diamond Lake lookout and Lake Wanaka lookout which I highly recommend because the views were spectacular and there were no tourists there. Lake Wanaka lookout is 2hr return and Diamond Lake lookout is 1hr return. It’s challenging at times but overall manageable. When we reached Lake Wanaka lookout, it was all worthwhile. We also had time to visit Wanaka Lavender Farm which is really not worth the time – you have to pay to enter the lavender farm and there are not that many rows of

Day 8 – Cardrona Alpine Resort

As mentioned previously, due to an accident, I had to make some last minute changes to my itinerary so this was the happy discovery that I’ve made. As we were in New Zealand over summer, obviously we won’t able to ski at this resort. However, they have transformed the resort into an outdoor playground. You could go mountain biking and even go-kart down the ski slopes. We took the cable car to the peak and walked around it. It was so beautiful because we were at the top of the mountains and the best part was that we didn’t even have to hike up! There were still patches of snow around so we had a chance to play with snow in the middle of summer. The resort was very comfortable and we just stayed there for the night. You can also have dinner at Cardrona Hotel but you will have to drive down and back up this windy gravel road which requires some driving skills. After dinner we braved the cold (below zero degrees in summer) to star graze. Never seen so many stars so clearly at night before!

Day 9 (Cardrona – Queenstown)

After spending our mid summer in the snow, we headed down to Queenstown. Throughout the drive, we saw fields of lupines growing by the side of the road. Couldn’t help but stop to take photos of these flowers. We drove through crown range and stopped at the car park at crown pass to climb up the submit. It was quite a strenuous climb – steep and very exposed to the sun. After having experienced the beautiful mountain ranges in Cardrona resort, I would give this a miss. As we climbed up this submit on Christmas Day, we decided to get into the Christmas spirit with hats and silly ears.

After the hike, we drove to the charming, quirky Arrowtown for lunch. This old gold rush village has a Chinese Settlement that showed how the Chinese used to gold mine there.

Day 10 (Queenstown)

I went off on my own for white water rafting at Shotover River with Go Orange. I had an amazing experience that I would definitely do it again! While I was getting an adrenaline rush, my parents took a cable car up to Coronet Peak. They had a good time walking around that area and enjoying the good views. There are many activities to do in Queenstown. Unfortunately, all the activities are very expensive but I’m glad that I chose whitewater rafting! After that thrilling rafting, we drove to Glenorchy to explore that area. The drive there was pretty but there is nothing much to do at Glenorchy so if you are pressed for time, I would suggest to give this a miss.

Day 11 (Queenstown – Te Anau)

The main attractions in Te Anau are Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. Both requires a tour so remember to book in advance especially during peak season. By the time we arrived in Te Anau and checked into our accommodations, we decided to drive towards Mirror Lakes and explore the little points of interest along the way. We also did a little hike around Lake Mistletoe – honestly quite boring. But we stopped a couple of times on the drive to take photo of the beautiful scenery surrounding us.

Day 12 (Milford Sound)

I booked us on the Milford Sound Nature Cruise with Real Journeys. Driving to Milford Sound during summer peak periods can take a while especially at the Homer Tunnel, so leave early to enjoy the scenic drive. The cruise was about three hours and we saw resident seals and lots of waterfalls. We all enjoyed the cruise and packed our own lunch to have it on board. Milford Sound can get very cold so do remember to bring a warm jacket (something that can break the wind).

After the cruise, we drove to The Chasm which provides dramatic views of a series of powerful waterfalls. At the carpark we were greeted by the playful Kea who was trying to peck our car tyres. As we were still feeling energetic after that relaxing cruise, we hiked up Key Summit for spectacular views of Fiordland National Park. I highly recommend this hike because on the clear day, you get to see Lake Marian and the view is breathtaking.

Day 13 (Doubtful Sound )

We booked an overnight Doubtful Sound Cruise with Real Journeys. Doubtful Sound is very different from Milford Sounds. It felt like I had entered into Jurrasic World. It is three times bigger than Milford Sound and is the deepest of the fiords with three distinct arms and many waterfalls. Getting to Doubtful sound takes a longer time because you’ll have to take a short cruise from Manapouri and then a coach before arriving at Deep Cove for the Doubtful Sound Cruise. So if you are short of time, I would recommend going for Milford Sound Cruise instead. The cruise was very relaxing and the highlight for me was kayaking in the Sound. If you can’t kayak, you can always choose to ride on a tender craft (which my parents did) or even jump off the cruise and swim in the sound itself (warning the water is freezing!). The food on the cruise was so good! I think I had three serves of dinner that night. We also saw resident seals and had dolphins swim right next to our cruise! A truly enjoyable experience!

Day 14 (Manapouri – Owaka)

After our relaxing overnight cruise, we hit the road again towards Owaka. Owaka is the largest town in the Catlins area and also a lot less touristy. It was hard to find nice accommodations in this area so we ended up staying at a backpackers hostel at Surat Bay. One good thing about this hostel is that it is situated right next to the beach. This beach is also home to sea lions and we saw one just resting on the beach! You can also easily pick up clams and oysters (didn’t see any oysters at all but we picked up two clams). We also visited Purakaunui Falls which was nothing spectacular.

Day 15 (Owaka – Mount Cook Village)

Before our big drive to Mount Cook Village, we visited Nugget Point Light House. I really like this place! There were resident seals just chilling at the bottom of the cliffs. And just before Nugget Point is a bay called roaring bay where you might see yellow-eyed penguins. Apparently the best time to spot these penguins is just before sunset. I wished that we had more time in Owaka because it is such a hidden gem with plenty of wildlife and nature to explore.

The drive from Owaka to Mount Cook Village was very enjoyable! We drove past many orchards and stopped along the way to pick up fresh cherries, peaches and plums. We past through Lindis Pass links the Mackenzie Basin with Central Otago. The actual pass crosses a saddle between the valleys of the Lindis and Ahuriri Rivers at an altitude of 971 metres above sea. When nearing Mount Cook Village, we past by Lake Pukaki which amazed us with its turquoise blue waters which comes from the glacier. There was a Lavender Farm on our way to Mount Cook Village. I didn’t pay money to enter the farm but got myself a delicious lavender ice cream. When we reached the village, we checked into Mount Cook Lodge which had good views of the glacier just at our balcony.

Day 16 (Mount Cook)

We kicked off our day with the Hooker Valley Track. This is the most popular track in Mount Cook so expect a lot of tourists. It is an easy 3 hour return 10km walk where you get to cross swing bridges and awe at the landscapes of the southern alps. We met a hunter who killed a Thar and was carrying its bloodied body back to the village. He told us that Thars are pests in New Zealand as they eat up the natural vegetation. It was funny seeing the expression of people as he walked past them with this dead animal on his back.

There are many other short walks that you can do and the Hooker Valley track is a must! We also did the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View walk which took us less than an hour return. After a long day of walking, we treated ourself to dinner at The Panorama Room at the Hermitage Hotel. The food there was delicious!

Day 17 (Mount Cook – Christchurch)

The last league of our journey is driving to Christchurch. Lake Tekapo gets its intense milky-turquoise colour from the fine rock-flour (ground by glaciers) which is suspended in the water. We stopped over at the Church of the Good Shepherd for a couple of photos of this charming little church by the lake.

After about three hours of driving, we checked into our hotel in Christchurch and went out to explore the city. Unfortunately, the city looks like it was still recovering from the damage of the Earthquake in 2011 that I didn’t take any photos. We just had a good dinner and got ready for our flight back home.

New Zealand is one of the countries that is absolutely breathtaking. I would recommend at least one week in North Island and two weeks in South Island. There are so many things to do and explore especially if you are an adventure seeker. However, it is not the cheapest place to travel (food is expensive!). Nevertheless, I’ll most definitely visit New Zealand again!

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