The Highlights of New Zealand’s South Island in 15 Days – Part 2
This is part 2 of “The Highlights of New Zealand’s South Island in 15 Days”:
Day 8: Queenstown to Milford Sound and back to Te Anau
Today will be a big day. Set off early by 8am and drive to Milford Sound. The journey there is so beautiful it is a destination in itself. Once out of Queenstown, head towards the same direction as the Remarkables ski field. Before reaching the picturesque town of Kingston, you will drive past the Devil’s Staircase, so named because of the bends and the undulating grounds on which the road runs. Take a moment here at the rest stop for some photo ops.
Driving on, head toward Kingston. Kingston is a small town of which the famed Kingston Flyer, a steam train, is based. Most people wouldn’t want to stay the night in Kingston, given its proximity to Queenstown. However, it is a lovely town with beautiful views on the southern end of Lake Wakatipu, far away from the tourist traps. And it offers accommodation that are more affordable than Queenstown’s, particularly during summer.
Your next stop will be Te Anau, another picturesque town, fronting the lake of its namesake. Lake Te Anau is the largest lake in South Island and it is beautiful year-round, and is surrounded by snow-clad mountains late autumn to spring. Make this now a brief stop, as you will have time to admire the place when you return after your cruise at Milford Sound.
Continuing on in a north-westerly direction toward Milford Sound for about 45 minutes, you will come across Mirror Lakes. On a sunny and windless day, you can catch perfect reflections of the Earl Mountains off the lakes. If you have time, you can even go for a short, 10 minute walk here.
Your next stop, less than 5 minutes away, is Knobs Flat. Stop for more photos. If you have 4WD, you can even drive onto the meadows for some heart-stopping pictures. I can go on forever about the stops you can make along the way, but you can always read that up later. Point it, it is a beautiful drive toward Milford Sound, and we are not even there yet.
There are a number of cruise companies to choose from, each with varying length of time on board but prices are around NZ$45 presently.
Depending on what you like to see, but personally, Milford Sound is best visited in early spring, when mountains are snow-capped and when the snow is melting, adding to the volume of the waterfalls. I went once during summer, and I felt it no different from Cameron Highlands in Malaysia – sorry, that’s just a personal opinion.
I would like to remind all drivers to please keep your eyes on this road and drive to the conditions and speed limit. Black ice can form on colder days and so it is best to exercise extreme care. One of my friends died and the others suffered catastrophic injuries that took years to heal from an accident on this road. If you are tired, stop and rest.
After a spectacular time on the cruise, it’s time to head back to Te Anau for the night. There are a number of options to choose from here: hotels, motels, youth hostels and holiday homes – whichever fancies you.
An after thought, if the day hadn’t been big enough for you, you might want to check out the glow worm caves in Te Anau in the night. This tour is operated by Real Journey. Charges apply.
Day 9: Te Anau to The Catlins
The next day, spend a bit of time by Lake Te Anau and the surrounds before heading toward the Catlins. Personally, I find the Catlins a bit far from everywhere else. So, it would be worthwhile to stay at least a night here and explore the region so that you don’t have to make long drives back to wherever you had intended to make a base of.
But first, if you like a little detour, let’s go for a road trip. Take the road that leads to Invercargill. Enroute, you will pass picture-perfect small villages, like Cosy Nook in Pahia. The turn off leading into Cosy Nook is sign-posted as Monkey Island. Drive in and on to the end of Mullet Road.
Driving on, you’re heading to Bluff. They’re famous for their oysters here, seriously. But Bluff is also the southern-most town in New Zealand. Head down the road towards Stirling Point if you want that end-of-the-world feeling.
After you’ve had your brief rush of adrenaline being so close to the Antarctic and having had your fill of Bluff oysters, it’s time to drive on to The Catlins.
The Catlins is home to the famous Purakaunui Falls, McLean Falls and the Maitai Falls. All 3 waterfalls are easily accessible from the carparks, between 20 to 40 minutes’ walking time. The Catlins is also known for the Petrified Forest and the extremely shy Yellow-Eye Penguins at Curio Bay. Reportedly form 150~180 million years ago (hey man, I am no geologist – so just mouthing off what I have read), the petrified forest was originally coniferous forests that were buried and silicified. The resulting tree trunks are as hard as rocks. (and an up close view of petrified trees, visit Gardens by the Bay – it’s just besides the ticketing office,, outside the domes, so no admission charges apply). Visit the petrified forest during low tide, else there’s nothing to see. And if you want to see the Yellow-Eyed Penguins, go at sunset or sunrise, when they swim out for the day. Be sure to keep a distance from the penguins, as they are extremely shy and may not return to their nests if they are disturbed. Please respect that.
Day 10: The Catlins
Depending on what you have been able to accomplish the previous day, you may choose to visit the waterfalls today, particularly McLean Falls and Purakaunui Falls, in that order. Take it easy today and head to accommodation at Kaka Point or Surat Bay in Owaka. But if you want to wake to the most beautiful sunrise ever, I would recommend that a stay at Kaka Point, about an hour and a half north of Curio Bay. Check out these self-catering options: https://www.holidayhouses.co.nz/Kaka-Point.asp
Day 11: The Catlins to Dunedin
Today, drive up to Dunedin – known as a student city, because of the focus on higher education and where New Zealand’s first university, The University of Otago, is founded. Dunedin is worthy of a few nights’ stay. In particular, you would want to stay on the Otago peninsula, a picture-perfect area just 20 minutes south of the city centre. Visit Larnach Castle, set amidst a beautifully-maintained garden that overlooks the peninsula. The ‘castle’ itself beautifully restored, is definitely worth a visit, as it shows up an aspect of New Zealand’s history that is rarely seen elsewhere within New Zealand (admission charges apply). One must remember, New Zealand, was founded 21 years later than Singapore – to the day on Feb 6, 1840, and so there is a ‘dearth’ of history when compared to Europe. Now, how come there isn’t a ‘castle’ in Singapore?
Half an hour further up the peninsula, is the Royal Albatross Centre at 1260 Harrington Point Road. This is where you can take a guided tour to view and understand these amazing birds. The Albatrosses, with wingspans of up to 3.5m and can stay on air for up to 16,000km without stopping! We went once in early September once and were disappointed not to be able to see any albatross. But on our second visit, in late October, they were everywhere. Best time to visit is summer – December to March (strictly speaking, March is already the beginning of autumn). Admission charges apply.
If you want to shake up the lazy bones in you, try an Argo tour with Nature Wonders, located very near to the Royal Albatross centre at: Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula, Dunedin, New Zealand. The 8-wheel Argos tour will take you to ‘rough’ terrains to see the wildlife in the peninsula – seals, penguins, etc. At NZ$99 per pax, it doesn’t come cheap but it’s an adventure in itself. Some would consider this tour gimmicky, but I don’t mind it. It is a substitution for the best ride I ever had – on a snow mobile on Old Man Range in Alexandra (that’s another story). Don’t bother googling the snow mobile ride at Old Man Range- it was not a commercial arrangement.
Day 12: Dunedin Mt Cook National Park via Moeraki Boulders
Before heading inland for more spectacular views of what New Zealand’s south island has to offer, make a brief visit to Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world. It is so steep, your fully-laden car would feel like it is going to flip backward on the way up. Don’t worry, it won’t. But do make sure your brakes are working, it’s a long way down.
Once you are firmly planted on level ground again, you can be ‘awarded’ (cos you need to pay for it) a certificate from the corner shop – if you’ve walked it. Your next detour would be the Dunedin Botanic Garden. It is most beautiful in late spring and summer, when the flowers are in full bloom. Its collections of rhododendrons itself is worthy of your time here. Admission is free.
Another nearby stop deserving of your time is at the Dunedin Railway station. The beautiful architecture both outside and within hark back to prosperous times in Dunedin.
You will now make a relatively short one-hour drive to Moeraki Boulders. These are interesting, gigantic spherical rocks that dots the Koekohe beach. Be forewarned that hordes of tourists come here for photos, particularly between mid morning and early afternoon. They don’t stop for long, and so you will have some opportunities to have these boulders all to yourself, before the next bus pulls up.
Once you are done with the boulders, now it’s time to begin your next leg of the journey that will take you inland towards Mount Cook Village. This is a 2.5hrs drive and it good weather, it is both an easy and pleasant drive. Enroute, you may want to have a cuppa at Oamarama , just 1 hour 45 mins away from Moeraki Boulders.
Then drive on for about 20 minutes and you will arrive at High Country Salmon farm. This where you can get your freshly caught salmon to satisfy your sashimi cravings. They are not particular fat, and so you might be slightly disappointed. But you can’t really complain the price, at NZ$32 per kg (it was NZ$12 per kg when i first chanced upon them) makes a strong proposition. Be sure to ask for ‘sashimi-quality’ ones to ensure the freshest cut and indicate the weight you want. You can also ask sashimi cut, but that will be dearer. I usually bring my own knife along, with wasabi and Japanese soy sauce in tow, all the way from Singapore. Talk about dedication. Once you had your fill, drive another 3 minutes north into Twizel Town, where you can stock up on some groceries if you like. There are two 4-Square supermarkets, but the newer and bigger one just opposite the shops, is probably the better one.
Driving north for another 5 or 6 minutes will bring you to the turn off into Mount Cook road, that will lead you to the Mt Cook Village proper. If the weather is good, make a slight detour to the information centre, located just 2 or 3 minutes after the turn off. On a good day, you will be greeted by a magnificent view of Mt Cook in the distance, towering like the Matterhorn, over the blue waters of Lake Pukaki. Driving back towards the Mt Cook Village, you can also make a brief photo-stop at Pete’s lookout, about 10 minutes from the turn off, on your right. Here is another beautiful view of Mt Cook, from a different perspective.
Another 40 minutes on the road and you will arrive at Mt Cook Village. Accommodation options are limited, the most expensive being The Hermitage and the ‘cheapest’, being YHA. A long time ago, YHA was the obvious choice, it offering the a ‘true’ alpine feel – log house and all, and the price was affordable. These days, if you are taking a private room with shared facilities, it will set you back by at least NZ$120. I would suggest checking out the Mt Cook Lodge & Motels or Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Lodge. They both have shared kitchen facilities and so, if you want to do some cooking, you’re good.
If you have the energy and if it’s still light, drop off your luggage and drive along the Tasman Valley Road. Do note that you’ll be driving along unsealed gravel road. At the end of the road, is a carpark. From here, it is 20 minute climb to the top. You will need moderate fitness to climb up as it rises 800m from the ground. Along the way, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view over the Tasman Valley. Further up, at about the midway point to the top, on your left, are the “Blue Lakes” (which have since turned green). This makes a nice detour and a good excuse if you want to break your climb.
But finally, as you arrived at the top, you will be greeted by a 360˚ over the Tasman Glacier and the surrounding mountains. Worth every bit of your energy climbing up here!
Day 13: Mt Cook Village – Hooker Valley Track
Rise and shine today as you are going to do another walk! Drive to the White Horse Hill campground and carpark and start your trek on the Hooker Valley track. It is a 3-hour walk that takes you across 3 swing bridges to the Hooker Glacier Lake. And looming above all, is Mt Cook. There are seats here where you can rest your feet and enjoy the view. Might as well have your packed lunch here!
In the afternoon, but well before 5pm, when it closes, pay a visit to the excellent Mt Cook Visitor Centre. You’ll learn plenty about the region here. If you’re interested, you can also visit Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, located the Hermitage Hotel, a short walk away from the Visitor Centre. In the evening, there is a stargazing tour. Called “Big Sky Stargazing”, you will be given a guided tour of the stars as seen from the southern sky. This is similar to the Earth and Sky Stargazing Tour over at Lake Tekapo. And since you won’t have time staying the night there, you might want to give this tour a shot.
Day 14: Mt Cook Village to Lake Tekapo to Christchurch
This morning you will depart from the Mount Cook Village and head towards Lake Tekapo. About 2 minutes before you hit Lake Tekapo, there is a turn off that leads Godley Peaks Road. This road leads you to the entrance of the Mount John Observatory. It was free to enter Mount John in the past, but times dictate change. So now they levy a NZ$5 fee per car. I supposed somebody has to pay for the paved roads up. Anyway, your gripe over the NZ$5 fee will soon be forgotten as you will be greeted by a fantastic view over Lake Tekapo and the surrounding mountains. When you have finally gotten over the initial euphoria, you can settle in for a nice cuppa at the Astro Cafe. Their carrot cakes are simply to die for!
Pressing on (don’t forget you still have a long way back to Christchurch), you will want to stop briefly at Lake Tekapo. Be stunned by the beauty of the turquoise water of Lake Tekapo!
Your journey back to Christchurch is not complete without a stopover at Pleasant Point. Pleasant Point is the home of Richard Pearse, a pioneering NZ aviator. It was claimed he flew a plane 9 months before the Wright brothers did. But that is not why I am asking you to come to Pleasant Point. Pleasant Point is also the home of the Denheath Custard Squares, a quintessential Kiwi dessert. It first started out at the Pleasant Point Post Office, which was later bought over and renamed Denheath House. But now that the owners of Denheath has moved the business to Timaru, and the new owners of the property has renamed the place Legends Cafe. Although Denheath custard squares can be bought from many cafes all over New Zealand, nothing beats trying it at Legends Cafe, but here’s where it all began. They close at 4.30pm, so do come way before closing time. And if you come at the right time, they even organize an annual Custard Squares eating competition. Check their facebook for details. (I’ve tried custard squares all over New Zealand, and Denheath’s still the best – for taste and texture).
Heading east and then north at Temuka, you will soon be travelling along State Highway 1 and about 2 hours from your destination.
Christchurch, after the devastating earthquake in 2011, is still in recovery mode. Much of the CBD has been destroyed and a certain sense of desolation greets you as you wonder around the city. What was once a centre of activities, Cathedral Square is presently fenced off. The souvenir stores that abounded before are all gone now. If you are determined to catch some souvenirs before departing home, you are best served by perhaps Toi Toi, which is located at Container S16, Re: START Mall, Christchurch-City, along Cashel Street or at the airport. Otherwise, do all your souvenir shopping when in Queenstown. Otherwise, you might leave for home empty handed.
If you have time, the Christchurch Botanic Gardens is well-worth a visit, especially in late spring and summer, when the roses are in full bloom. The garden is open from 7am to 8.30pm daily.
If you are feeling like some Cantonese cuisine for dinner, try the popular Joyful Restaurant. Tastes differ, but this is a favourite restaurant of mine. Located at :102 Riccarton Rd, Riccarton, Christchurch 8041, they are open for business between 11am and 3.30pm for lunch and between 5.30pm and 9.30pm for dinner. Reservations is recommended for dinner.
Day 15: Christchurch
In all probability, your flight will depart Christchurch early. In that case, there is little that you can do today. However, if you are an early riser, then head out to Port Hills for some of the prettiest sunrises in New Zealand. Drive to the Sign of the Kiwi Cafe (re-opening January 23, 2017 – after it was damaged in the 2011 earthquake). It is located about 20 minutes south of the city centre. Even from its carpark and the surrounding area, you will be presented with a fabulous view from here.
That’s it! I hope you have enjoyed the above sample itinerary. You are free to change the duration of each stop and customize one to your liking. Everybody’s experience of New Zealand is different and nobody can really lay claim to having the best experience of this amazing country. I believe you will find something that you truly enjoyed in your travels and I am happy to receive all suggestions. Feel free to like my facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/mybigroadtrip
Read part 1 of this itinerary here: http://mybigroadtrip.com/new-zealand/the-highlights-of-new-zealands-south-island-in-15-days/