The Highlights of New Zealand’s South Island in 15 Days
In the wake of the devastating 7.8 earthquake in New Zealand’s south island, I have to alter the following itinerary to exclude Kaikoura (which is presently cut off from the rest of New Zealand – 16 November 2017). Kaikoura is a beautiful town, nestled between beautiful mountains and the ocean. And unfortunately too, the breeding ground for seal pups there at Ohau Stream is destroyed. It was really a wonderful sight to see so many seal pups frolicking at the waterfall by Ohau Stream. Where the new breeding grounds will be for these seals remain to be seen.
That said, a number of people have been asking me to do up a 15-day itinerary of South Island. While preferences vary, here is my recommendation for a 15-day “Must-Do” vacation in South Island, New Zealand:
Please note that taking Option A involves driving through the town of Culverden, which lies very near to the epicentre of the recent quakes. Culverden did not suffer much damage, no did Hanmer Springs or Maruia Springs. However, if you would rather skip Culverden altogether, please skip this option and go straight to Option B.
Day 1: Land in Christchurch and drive to Maruia Springs or Hanmer Springs
After a long flight (usually overnight) what better thing to do is to be refreshed with a soak the natural hot spring water in Maruia Springs. Relax, recharge and chill in the cool mountain air, surrounded by beautiful beech forests. While most people prefer to visit Hanmer Springs Village (90 mins from Christchurch), where they have a large thermal pool complex, my wife and I personally prefer Maruia Springs (2.5hrs from Christchurch)- far away from the crowds. Be forewarned, there is no radio signals here, so your mobile phones don’t work here. There is wifi but you pay through your nose here. Just as well, you are on vacation, let no one disturb you. Just 7km before reaching Maruia Springs Thermal Resort, take a detour to the head of St James Walkway (If you are driving from Christchurch, it’s the second entrance of St James Walkway). Just 5 minutes from the carpark is a platform offering beautiful view of a pond (frozen in winter), flanked by mountains and beech forests and the distant mountains. (Do note that since the November 14, 2016 earthquake State Highway 7 has a lot more traffic – but nothing like Bangkok’s, don’t worry).
Day 2: Maruia Springs to Hokitika with detour to Punakaiki
The next day, drive to Punakaiki on the west coast, where the famous pancake rocks and blowholes are located. Thereafter, drive south to Hokitika and visit some of the greenstone (Jade) factories where the west coast is famous for. If you have time, make a detour to Lake Kaniere, just 25 mins southeast of Hokitika.
Day 1: Land in Christchurch and drive to Akaroa
If a hot soak in the natural springs in not your thing, then you might consider a shorter drive after landing in Christchurch and drive to Akaroa. Akaroa is a quaint little town on Bank Peninsula and had its beginnings as a French settlement briefly. France it is not, apart from a few road names in French, but a lovely and picturesque town it is. Enjoy its beautiful harbour, the eclectic gift shops and cafes and walks. There is a great fish and chips shop in town, Akaroa Fish and Chips, located at: 59 Beach Road, Akaroa 7520, New Zealand. Go for the Blue Cod if available!
Day 2: Akaroa to Arthur’s Pass National Park
The next day, drive to Arthur’s Pass National Park. Take State Highway 73. Enroute, stop at Castle Hills briefly for some photo ops as the interesting limestone boulders are simply out of this world. The Arthur’s village itself is quite small but it is a fantastic launch pad for great walks around the area. If you are not gamed for long walks, try the Devil’s Punchbowl, which takes you to the base of a waterfall and it’s just 1 hour return. There are not many choices of accommodation, so book early. The YHA there is pretty awesome but if you are not into shared bathrooms, then the Arthur’s Pass Alpine Motel is a good choice. I have stayed at the latter and it was alright. Arthur’s Pass is well-worth a visit. You will not be disappointed with the scenery as you will be surrounded by the towering mountains!
Regardless whether you are taking option A or B, the following applies:
Day 3: Onward to Fox Glacier
The next morning, after checking out of your accommodation, make a detour to Hokitika Gorge. The spectacular view from the swing bridge of the blue waters is something to be seen to believe. Next, make the 2.5 hours drive to Fox Glacier. While not a must, I would recommend at a 2 night stay at Fox Glacier. The high rainfall here makes your visit to the glacier uncertain. So, having a second night here increases your chance of visiting the glacier. If the day you arrive is a good day (particularly from October to April), go sign up for a guided glacier immediately. You never know what the weather is going to be the next day. Personally, I would recommend taking the Helihike tour, where you are taken on a chopper and land on the glacier itself. Then, you will be taken on a spectacular hike on the glacier, including going inside the ice caves. An unforgettable adventure!
Day 4: Fox Glacier
Your second day at Fox Glacier begins early when you drive at dawn to Lake Matheson, just 5 minutes by car from the township. On a good calm day, you will have that million-dollar view of a very still lake that casts a perfectly mirrored image of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman.
Day 5: Drive to Queenstown via Haast Pass and Wanaka
Today begins a long journey south. Take this as a road trip, a tour, and you’ll be fine. Slightly over 2 hours south, you will arrive at the blue pools walk, just south of Haast Pass, and a few minutes north of Makarora. It is another beautiful sight to behold. Allow 30 minutes for this walk.
Continuing on, you will soon arrive in Wanaka. Wanaka is a beautiful town. Quieter than its more famous cousin, Queenstown, it is no less beautiful. The much-photographed Glendhu Bay, about 10 minutes northwest out of Wanaka Town, is a picturesque and tranquil place. Stop here for a moment to take in the peace. Wanaka Town itself offers a lot of food options, so you won’t go hungry here. If you have time, allow yourself at least 1.5hrs at Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World. It has some of the most interesting perception-altering displays and an interesting outdoor maze
Oh, how you wished you had another night in Wanaka, I know, I know. But hey, you only have 15 days in New Zealand, so you’ve got to drive on to Queenstown for the night. Queenstown is just 1 hour’s drive from Wanaka. There are a two ways to get to Queenstown, but in summer, I would recommend taking the Cardrona Valley- Crown Range Road. The Crown Range is the highest main road in New Zealand and as you descend towards Arrow Junction, you will be rewarded with breathtaking views of the valley below and the surrounding mountains. As you continue on toward Queenstown, once you have passed Frankton, you will be greeted by the beautiful Lake Wakatipu, and you will be driving along it all the way into Queenstown. The Crown Range road can be icy in Winter, unless you want to deal with the hassle of putting on chains, best take the road via Cromwell.
Plenty of places of stay in Queenstown, but do book ahead as it is an extremely popular resort town. The shoulder seasons like Spring (Sep – Nov) or Autumn (Mar – May) is fine, but do look out for when Easter is. Christmas and Easters are 2 major Kiwi holidays and accommodations can be booked out for up to a year ahead. Try staying at a property away from the main town area but further away, like in Fernhill, where you will have an eye-popping views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain.
Day 6: Queenstown – Gondola – Arrowtown
Spend a relaxing day here in Queenstown and its surrounds. You can choose to drive out of town to Arrowtown in the morning. Arrowtown, like many other towns in New Zealand, was a gold-mining town. Among the many who came here were the Chinese. You can still visit the historic Chinese settlement in Arrowtown by the forested area behind the row of shops. Its main street is sandwiched by 2 rows of shops. It is quite touristy, as in Queenstown, but wander around and you may be able to find something interesting for yourself.
I’m not sure if you’re interested in pies, but they have a pretty good Bakery at one end of the the main street. Called Arrowtown Bakery, you order one of their pies to go and bring it to their cafe next door, order a coffee and enjoy your pies there. You can also order your pies directly from the cafe, but it is slightly pricier. Their mince pies are to die for (Then again, tastes vary, so don’t hold me to it).
Address: Arrowtown Bakery. 1 Buckingham St, Arrowtown 9302, New Zealand
After your morning in Arrowtown, a good lunch is in order. For that, you might want to try the Winery Restaurant at Gibbston Valley, just 10 minutes out of Arrowtown. They really do quite a decent lunch here, and you can ask for recommendations on what is the best wine to pair with your meal. Be prepared to spend at least NZ$30 per mains. They are open for lunch between 12 noon and 3pm. Do call ahead to make a reservation.
Next door, is their cheesery. Pop over once you have enjoyed your lunch.
Gibbston Valley Winery is located at: 1820 State Highway 6, Gibbston 9371, New Zealand
Your day is still not done yet. Next, drive back to Queenstown. Before zooming all the way back to Queenstown, you might want to pop by AJ Hackett’s original bungy-jumping site over the Kawarau Gorge, just a couple of minutes away. This is the birthplace of the modern day bungy jumping. Even if you don’t fancy regurgitating your lunch, at least make a brief stop here to satiate your sadistic joy of seeing others screaming their heads off.
Making the half-hour drive back to the Skyline Gondola, prepare yourself for a bird’s eye view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. The cable car will take you 450m right up to Bob’s peak in a matter of minutes. Feast your eyes on the panoramic view from the platform. You could also take the Luge rides here. I rather ride the luge here in the cool weather than the ones in Sentosa anytime. I don’t wish to sound like a travel brochure here, so I’ll leave you to google more about this place on your own. But do note that this place is ‘infested’ with tourists, yourselves included.
If you prefer to save some money and climb up to Bob’s peak, you may do so via the Tiki Trail. Be forewarned, moderate fitness is needed.
Before dinner, you might want to head to the lakefront. Some may want to take the cruises (the most iconic of all is the TSS Earnslaw Steamship) here or the jetboats.
Some of you may have heard about Fergburger. Located at 42 Shotover Street, it is a must-stop place for many visitors to Queenstown. Its very large burgers can sometimes be shared by 2 small Asian stomachs. So, be gratified, be very gratified with their burgers. But, it is very crowded, even at midnight (it is opened from 8.30am to 5am). IMHO, the Fergburger is quite nice, but overrated. As we say in Singapore, it’s the hype lah.
I would urge you to walk around town and check out some of the dinner deals they do here, especially on a weekday night.
Day 7: Queenstown – Glenorchy
The next day, you would want to make a day trip to Glenorchy. The Queenstown-Glenorchy road is one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand. The journey is actually quite short, about 40 minutes. Along the way, there are a few bays where you can safely stop for a photo op. When finally you have arrived at Glenorchy, take some time to wander around the lakefront. Further up, is the Glenorchy-Paradise Road. And as the road name suggests, it leads to a place called paradise. It is 20km of unsealed road (gravel road), so do slow down (I would suggest no more than 70kmh). If you book ahead, you can also stay at one of the cottages maintained by the Paradise Trust (http://www.paradisetrust.co.nz/cottages/)
If you still have the energy and want to visit more vantage points in Queenstown, I would suggest a visit to the Remarkables Mountain itself. It is open all year (closed when it is unsafe – such as heavy snow). In winter, you can definitely go for a ski. But if you just want to make a day trip with nothing too adventurous, drive up anyway. At about the 6km mark from the car park at the Remarkables turnoff, you will find a small place to park. Climb up the side of the mountain and just a few metres onward, you will be rewarded with a beautiful vista of the valley below, where you can see the Shotover river joining the Kawarau river. If you wait long enough, sometimes you can see planes flying below you, as they make the final approach to the airport in Frankton.
To get to the Remarkables Ski Area, drive toward Kingston from Queenstown. The turn-off is about 15 minutes from Queenstown. If you are using GPS, you can search for: 249 Kingston Road, Kawarau Falls 9371, New Zealand. From the turn-off, it is 6km up the mountain to the vantage point mentioned above.
I must warn you though, in winter and early spring, the road here can be treacherous. And it is imperative during these period that you have chains with you, you may need to put them on as and when required.
For part 2 of this itinerary, click here: http://mybigroadtrip.com/new-zealand/the-highlights-of-new-zealands-south-island-in-15-days-part-2/