This is a longer post than most, so you may want to settle down with a cuppa!
Back in November 2008 my husband and I took a trip across the globe to visit family in New Zealand. It was the first time that I had been to the beautiful country, although my husband visited his family semi-regularly throughout his childhood and early adulthood. This trip was particularly special as it was our honeymoon. Having wanted to make the journey for some time it seemed an opportune time to visit and celebrate the first weeks of our marriage with his family, and my in-laws, throughout the South Island.
For me it was a dream come true to travel to this wonderful country. We certainly made the most of our trip by tapping into my husband’s knowledge and the local knowledge of his family. Our itinerary was packed but thoroughly enjoyable and we created lifelong memories to look back on which I thought I would share here:
New Zealand welcomed us with open arms from the minute we disembarked from the plane. Weary after a long flight and two stops to change planes and refuel en route, the smiles and warmth that greeted us felt like the comfort of home. We hired a car for our trip and would recommend this to anyone planning a trip there. The roads are generally wide (with the exception of mountain passes) and passing cars are few and far between. You can travel quite some distance in one day given that you won’t come across many queues, if any! Even most town centres are empty when it comes to cars. Since our visit the tricky (for us) right-hand rule has been changed, but if you do hire a car make sure that you check out the New Zealand Road Code (which can be found here, please see my disclosure page for information on external links).
The i-SITEs (tourist information – link here) are super. They are packed full of useful guidance, and can find you accommodation to suit your needs/price range. When we arrived in Oamaru, for example, according to one hotel all the accommodation in the town centre was booked out because it was their annual Victorian Heritage Week. The local i-SITE managed to find us an excellent homestay instead, which was around £35 for both of us, with a full cooked breakfast included!
Homestays are fab and we would recommend them as a relaxed way to stay. There are generally a range of prices, and we found all the hosts that we stayed with to be very pleasant and informative when we were trying to book excursions or consider routes between places.
Below is the itinerary that we followed over two and a half weeks which includes the South Island only. To move between the islands (if you are not flying) you will most likely get the ferry between Picton (South Island near Nelson) and Wellington (North Island). You may therefore need to reorder the information below to accommodate starting or finishing your South Island tour at Nelson. Incidentally, most tourists seem to travel anticlockwise so I would suggest travelling clockwise to go against the flow.
Two and a half week itinerary of New Zealand’s magnificent South Island:
Day 1 and 2 – Christchurch.
The city was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2011 and will have changed physically from the way that we remember it, but I am confident that the spirit which courses through the heart of culture in New Zealand will make it just as special as we remember. The botanical gardens are worth a wander round, they are very pretty and peaceful, several moments of quiet can be gained there. Willowbank Wildlife Reserve (not far from the airport) is also worth a visit. They have a range of animals and birds, including Keas and Kiwis (in fact this was the only place we saw Kiwis).
Also worth a visit is the Antarctic Centre (just by the airport). It is a fascinating attraction. Here, alongside learning several fascinating facts, you can see Blue Penguins and experience Antarctic weather conditions! We are keen to take our boys there one day.
Day 3 – Route 77 from Christchurch to Timaru, via Methven and Geraldine
You won’t be disappointed, this is a very scenic route with superb views across the Canterbury Plains to the mountains.
Find somewhere to stay overnight at Timaru. We were lucky to be hosted by family, but there are many options here. The beautiful rose garden by the seafront is worth a wander, and we had some delicious local fish and chips for our tea to round off a lovely day.
Day 4 – Route 8 then 83 to Oamaru
This is a long way round but an easy drive, and Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki are not to be missed! There is a gorgeous view from Lake Pukaki across to Mount Cook. We ran out of time, but you can take a drive up route 55 to Mount Cook for more breath-taking scenery.
Once in Oamaru, go to the i-SITE and book to see the Blue Penguins in the evening. They are fabulous! It felt like such a privilege to watch them streaming in from the sea at the end of their day and scuttling home, reflective of our own evening rush hour. There were numerous food outlets and we stayed at a home stay on the hill with stunning views.
Day 5 and 6 – Route 1 to Dunedin, via the Moeraki Boulders
When you get to Dunedin, do not miss the beautiful Taieri Gorge Railway, or the Otago Penninsula – a short (20 mins) drive from Dunedin but well worth it, plus a chance to see the Royal Albatross!
We spent two nights in Dunedin, to break up the travelling a little, and to take time to explore the city, which has a lot to offer in addition to the highlights above. We enjoyed taking in the impressive architecture and visiting the Chinese Garden.
Day 7 – Go across country on route 8, 90 and 94 to Te Anau (via Gore)
We stayed at the Cats Whiskers in Te Anau, which is opposite Lake Te Anau (beautiful) and a short walk from the town centre.
Day 8 – Take a day trip to Milford Sound, along route 94 (Milford Pass)
There is amazing scenery along this route, you have to see it to believe it. Even if you need to miss other attractions out to see this road and experience Milford you will not be disappointed. When you get to Milford (if you have not booked in advance) book onto a cruise. The scenery gets better and better, plus you are highly likely see Fiordland Crested penguins and seals from the boat, along with the mountains and waterfalls.
Many day trips to Milford start from Queenstown and arrive around midday, so if possible go early, and go straight there to avoid the hoards. Make time for the underwater observatory at Milford too which is a wonderful way to take a peek under the surface of the water.
On the way back to Te Anau, do stop off at some of the short walks (well documented with lots of local information available) and the Mirror Lakes (which on a still day perfectly reflect the Earl Mountains – see photograph below). The walks and the Mirror Lakes are all on the main road, so you can just pull off at a car park and hop out to explore!
Day 9 – Te Anau to Lake Wanaka, via Queenstown
Queenstown is very pleasant, but busy, and you can take the cable car to fully appreciate the scenery. There is lots to do, especially for the more adventurous, so you could easily spend a few days here. We chose to stay at Lake Wanaka for its tranquility. Puzzling World is nearby, which was great fun, and there are plenty of walks around (including walks to vineyards).
Between Queenstown and Lake Wanaka we took the Crown Range Road. It is the highest main road in New Zealand, reaching an altitude of 1,121m! Now, I’ll be honest, it’s very wiggly (yes, that’s my technical term), but the views are fabulous and it is no worse than some of the hairpin bends you find throughout the Lake District in the UK. If in doubt, do check the travel advice though. For example you are not advised to use this road if you are towing a trailer or caravan, or if you are in a long vehicle (over 12m).
Day 10 – Route 6 from Wanaka to Fox Glacier
Stop off at Haast on the way to take in some beach walks. When you get to Fox, walk on the glacier or enjoy a helicopter ride (weather permitting).
Day 11 – Route 6 to Hokitika.
This has a lovely beach (although we were blessed with the heavy west coast rain whilst we were there!) Hokitika is a great place to buy genuine New Zealand jade. There are also lots of craft shops selling locally made products. We picked up some beautiful placemats and coasters.
Day 12 and 13 – Hokitika to Nelson
We missed out Able Tasman by doing this, but Nelson is lovely. If we were to move to the South Island I would be so very tempted to put down roots there. The community was very welcoming and we really felt at home. There is a great beach, an interesting museum, and lots of lovely places to eat and stay. We spent two nights there to give ourselves time to explore. We went horse riding, and visited the Gardens of the World (this is just on the outskirts but peaceful and stunning so worth the trip).
Day 14 and 15 – Nelson to Kaikoura, via the Marlborough vineyards
Our top tip is to book ahead for Kaikoura accommodation as it does get busy.
When in Kaikoura, do not miss out on the whale watching. It gets choppy so take note of the sea sickness advice, but it is worth it all to see the Sperm Whales and Dusky Dolphins! I will never forget watching these marvellous creatures and being astounded by the description of the topography below the water as we raced out across the waves to catch a glimpse of them.
We spent two nights there in order that we could explore and make the most of the opportunity to see the wildlife.
Day 16 and 17 – Kaikoura to Christchurch
We were in a hurry by this point in our adventure to get back to Christchurch and spend time with family before boarding the plane back to the UK, but if you are travelling at a more leisurely pace you could stop off at Hamner Springs. My in-laws described them as being very nice, although they can get busy.
17 days was all that we had time for, but I would love to hear about all the places that we missed and you think should have been on the above list, and any top tips for travelling around the North Island for when we next visit this beautiful country. Do get in touch or comment below!
Capturing our holiday on camera.
In the Botanical Gardens, Christchurch
The Rose Garden, Timaru
The view to Mount Cook is breathtaking
Penguins in Oamaru
The Moeraki Boulders, I thought that they looked like dinosaur eggs!
The Taieri Gorge Railway, Dunedin
The Chinese Garden, Dunedin
The boat trip at Milford Sound takes you right up to the bottom of some very impressive waterfalls!
The Mirror Lakes, Milford Road
Puzzling World, Wanaka
The beach at Hokitika
Horse riding near Nelson
We spotted lots of dolphins in Kaikoura, and saw a Sperm Whale too!
Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, Christchurch
Above are just a selection of our photos, we have so many! Be sure to take a decent camera with you, any extra insurance payment to cover it will be gained back by the images that you have to look back on. Happy travelling!