New Zealand | South Island Itinerary

Picking back up from my last post, here begins the start of week two in New Zealand and covers our stops on the South Island during April 2018. You can read about our one-week North Island Itinerary here and I will add links to a few additional New Zealand travel topics once they're completed -- van life recommendations, insurance, logistics, all that good stuff!

DAY 1: MARLBOROUGH REGION + BLENHEIM

After our delay in Wellington due to weather, we made it to Marlborough in the early afternoon and hurried to make the most of a half-day of wine tasting. All the winery cellar doors close for the day around 4-5pm so we had a few hours to fit in what we could. This was one of the areas that we were so sad to leave after such a short visit. The area had a pristine kind of beauty. Rows of vineyards stretched on forever into the horizon and we felt lucky to enjoy one of those vibrant days with bright green on the ground, bright blue in the sky, and pops of spring colors everywhere in between.

There are over thirty wineries near Blenheim so picking what we saw was a bit overwhelming, but I can highly recommend the two places we stopped at. We chose Forrest Wines and we loved the variety of the tasting tray they provided. The Marlborough region is known for their Sauvignon Blanc, which neither of us were particularly fond of before this visit, but we came to realize that the region has a unique and delicious spin on it. We ended up really liking the one we had here and grabbed an extra glass of it with our cheese plate. They have a lovely space and pretty grounds outside the tasting room to sit in and enjoy on warm days.

Next we booked it over to Villa Maria winery, which we chose based on photos and the fact that they are one of the oldest and most awarded wineries in New Zealand. While Forrest Wines was the perfect first stop to relax at after an early morning wake-up call and rocky ferry ride, Villa Maria was the perfect finish to our short but sweet wine experience because we were able to learn quite a bit from the staff here. We tried about 7 different wines at each place, but at Villa Maria they walked us through the differences and details of each wine and they were just super charming and lovely people.

Following that stop we drove around a bit more while the sun was setting to take some photos in this gorgeous backdrop -- it goes down in my memory as one of my favorite sunsets of all time. One of the wine tour operators we met along the way recommended Eat Thai in Blenheim for dinner so we ended the night there, which I can now say is just one of the BEST types of food to eat after a day of drinking amazing wine! Making a note to pair those things more often.

DAY 2: CHRISTCHURCH

During our night in Blenheim we stayed at another amazing Airbnb (listing here). It was one of those cozy, clean, warm homes where you feel like you're staying with relatives and can truly can make yourselves at home. Our host, Helen, served us freshly baked homemade bread with incredible spreads and we enjoyed chatting with her and her husband John for a bit. It was a wonderful stay and an awesome final morning in Blenheim.

This was another day of significant driving as we made our way to Christchurch. There is ongoing construction right along the ocean roads leading south to repair damage from a recent earthquake, so we had a couple closures and waiting periods but the drive was really beautiful. I’m used to seeing the Pacific Ocean often, but here and also in Wellington, it was cool to see these amazingly huge and powerful waves roll in and break against the shore.

We stopped for lunch at a cute place called Mainline Station Cafe. There weren’t many options for food along our route that wasn’t a quick takeaway place so were happy to find this cafe as a rest stop with really delicious, healthy food. We pulled into Christchurch in the late afternoon, dropped off our rental car, and then picked up our Jucy camper van for the night right near the airport. We used the app Campermate to find campsites along our route in the South Island and we chose to stay at North South Holiday Park. That evening we checked weather and routes and decided to alter our original itinerary yet again. We had originally planned to drive all the way west and then south to go through Arthur’s Pass, and see Hokitika and Franz Josef Glacier but decided to skip on that and head straight for Mount Cook once we accounted for all of the realities of the route. As New Zealand was in fall and headed towards winter, many of the roads in this part of the country are getting icy or even closed due to snow and we didn’t want to mess with ice chains and those conditions on a massive vehicle in a foreign landscape. Ultimately, I’m really pleased we made this adjustment because we still had a lot of ground to cover and I think we would have been even more rushed and tired if we had not reduced our amount of driving. It's always a leaning moment when you plan a route on a large map and then begin to realize the magnitude of that journey once you're actually on it. 

DAYS 3-4: CASTLE HILL + MOUNT COOK

We headed out early from Chirstchurch and did a detour from our route to Mount Cook to visit Castle Hill. This morning still feels hilarious to me. Kphil and I spent about an hour and a half driving these crazy mountain roads amid intense fog and were just trusting that the google maps location of Castle Hill was all we’d need to find it. We got there and all we found (after a few wrong turns and backtracks) was a car park with a sign that labeled where it was but with no indication of how long the trail was to reach it. It was foggy and freezing outside so we decided to make breakfast and coffee before braving this unknown trail and once we were done, we had a bit more visibility to take the trail. Turns out, Castle Hill is massive, a pretty short walk from the car park, and easily seen from the main road on days with no fog. So basically, it was right under our noses - ha!

Over the next hour and a half we saw the sun burn through the fog and everything switched from grey to blue. We had no idea we were standing in a valley surrounded by snowcap mountains and were pretty giddy about it as they slowly revealed themselves. This is a popular spot for bouldering so we saw groups come in later that morning with their gear and overall it's a really fun place to climb around and take in the horizon from every angle. It reminded me of the boulders in Joshua Tree National Park but surrounded by green fields instead of desert.

We jumped back in our camper and as we headed back down the mountain we saw loads of people coming up and there was lots of friendly waving between camper van crews. During our long drive we stopped at several lakes including Lake Tekapo in the afternoon and Lake Pukaki at sunset. With a few exceptions, Kphil and I often felt like we lucked out on timing and just happened upon places we weren’t expecting at the perfect time -- and this sunset was one of those times.

We reached Mount Cook National Park just after sunset and stayed the night at White Horse Hill Campground. This night was cold and rough and beautiful. We had a bit of a mishap adventure trying to track down the proper New Zealand currency for the campground since we couldn’t pay with card at night. We were on a non-powered site for the night, with no wifi, and it was freezing cold. So much colder than anticipated. In the morning, we realized we had in fact been sleeping not too far from a gigantic glacier... so that was cool. Mount Cook is part of the Dark Sky Reserve though and the sky this night was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve seen plenty of night sky photographs to have an idea of what it would be like to look up and see the Milky Way and its blanket of stars but nothing does it justice. I remember standing outside our camper van gazing at the universe and probably catching hypothermia -- only something that beautiful could keep me out in the cold like that.

The next morning we explored the park and took the Hooker Valley Track walk to the Mueller Glacier vista point. We had a short half hour of sun while we made breakfast but then the skies turned grey for the rest of the day and sent us a steady stream of light rain throughout our hike. Even in the rain, this path was really enjoyable with several suspension bridges, rivers, and amazing views all around us. 

Most of the day was spent on this trail and we decided to head out to Wanaka a bit early in the afternoon given the cold and lack of sleep from the night before. We grabbed coffee at the Old Mountaineers Cafe in the little village center before we hit the road and headed south to Wanaka. We crossed through sharp, windy roads and were very thankful we got to start it before the sun had fully set since this was one of our more challenging drives in the camper and we concluded the last half of it in darkness.

DAYS 5-6: WANAKA

That night in Wanaka we pulled into our campground and got to shower for the first time in three days, which felt amazingly luxurious. We got an early start the next morning for our hike to Roy’s Peak which was a short drive from our campsite. This hike had been on my life list for awhile and it’s an absolute must-do in New Zealand. It proved to be one of the most challenging and beautiful hikes I’ve ever done. We hiked roughly 12 miles there and back and the trail is extremely steep the majority of the time so it’s a challenge going up and you need to take it slow on the return as well. We ended at an elevation of 5,177 ft, with an elevation gain of 4,127 ft. What you hear about this hike is correct: you must pack enough water and food to sustain you and you must pack several layers. It was very hot when we started and I was regretting bringing my fleece, raincoat, gloves, etc. because of the extra weight, but by the time we were at the top getting blasted with cold wind I was happy to be wearing every single piece of clothing to my name (I peeled off a few layers for photo purposes... but don't be fooled, it was still freezing!). 

It was awesome to see all the different ages and groups of people who were on the trail with us, with everybody going their own pace and cheering each other on once we got close. We had done a good amount of hiking the day before in Mount Cook which felt like a good warm up, but we were honestly exhausted by the end of this and very sore for the next couple days. We had been eating most of our meals in our camper van since getting it but we knew we needed a serious pick-me-up after this so Kphil suggested we stop for burgers (you can always count on her for that) at Red Star Burger in Wanaka. It was honestly one of the best I’ve ever had and not just because we were completely wiped from the day. I can think of no better thing to eat after returning from Roy’s Peak and we both said we would likely have dreams about this burger at some point in the future.

That evening on our way back to the campsite we stopped by the famous Wanaka Tree that grows out in the lake away from the shore. It was a beautiful site at sunset and we also stopped by again in the morning on our way over to the Wanaka Lavender Farm. We had planned to leave Wanaka that morning and head out for the long drive to Milford Sound but once again we faced weather that forced us to adjust our plans. The roads down south closed due to snow so we ended up getting our cruise tickets refunded and decided to spend another day in Wanaka before arriving in Queenstown. I’m actually really grateful for this change in plans because it meant we only had a bit of driving to do these last couple days together and got to slow down and enjoy more. Also, I probably would have cried leaving Wanaka had we left after just one day because this place is MAGIC -- I could easily see myself living here. 

On our second day in Wanaka, we spent the morning at a lavender farm and it was pure bliss. We took our time walking through the farm and gardens, saying hello to the animals along the way which including horses, sheep, and llamas. Inside they have a shop and tea room where we sampled lavender tea, cookies, and cake, and their assortment of honeys. The whole place is beautifully designed and the smell of lavender throughout is so relaxing. We were in no rush to leave this indulgent and idyllic space.

We headed back into town and made lunch in our camper van while parked along Lake Wanaka. We fell in love with this town very quickly while walking around that afternoon and visiting the shops. It’s one of those just big enough towns where you have everything you need but the size is still really quaint and manageable. We were there in the heart of fall so the whole town was colored with the turn of the season, which felt extra special.

DAYS 7-12: QUEENSTOWN

From Wanaka we headed south to Queenstown, which I’m really glad we got to see together. At the time of writing this, I’ve been here for three days and it’s as wonderful as you’d hope it to be. As I mentioned, we originally would have been in Milford Sound up until the point of Kphi’s return flight, but with the change in our plans we got to take in this city on our final day.

We grabbed burgers at the famous Fergburger in town and its popularity delivers. They also have a bakery called Fergbaker right next door and we saw them carry over freshly baked buns for our burgers, which is the special part of what makes them so good.

After that we checked in to our campsite, dropped off the van, and took the gondola ride up to the top of Queenstown. We spent the afternoon in the cafe at the top and then headed back down just past sunset to see the whole place lit up from above. In the morning we stopped by Fergbaker for coffee and pastries on our way to the Queenstown Airport to return our camper van and send Kphil back home.

I booked another four days in Queenstown (stayed at the brand new Jucy Snooze hostel) to see more of the area and it was the perfect place to settle for my final days in New Zealand. They way people talk about Queenstown, I expected it to be much bigger but it is very easy to get around on foot and lap the city center while exploring. I walked the track in Queenstown Gardens every day I was there because I just couldn't get enough of the fall scenery.

These last few days here have been a mix of slow afternoons editing and writing, getting caught up in conversations with hostel friends, checking out the bars and nightlife here, mailing out postcards, finding excellent tacos at Taco Medic and yummy health food at Rehab, visiting an awesome church (Freedom Church - got an incredible story about this, ask me in person sometime), and booking flights and accommodation for my next stop in Sydney. 

SOUTH ISLAND EXPENSES

Since Kphil and I were splitting costs, we kept an account of what we spent and I'm happy to share that below. Our costs for one week on the South Island came to $719.01 USD for each of us, or roughly $100 a day (this does not include airfare expenses). So what did that look like? Our campgrounds throughout the week were more expensive than we originally thought but they were powered sites (with the exception of Mount Cook) with well kept facilities. The camper van was an absolute gas guzzler so we spent more in gas on this island and I imagine our cost would have been $200-300 more had we covered Franz Josef and Milford Sound. For food, we made the majority of our meals in the camper with inexpensive groceries, and splurged on the aforementioned burgers. Our day at the winery was also fairly cheap since it was cut short and we didn't end up doing any of the bus tours to get around. Again, had we done the Milford Sound Cruise that would have brought prices up but our paid activities were pretty limited. Exploring nature is after all the best free entertainment.

Campgrounds: $195.86
Campervan: $693.33
Gas: $206.47
Food: $249.40
Activities + Other: $92.96

TOTAL: $1,438.02 (for 2 people)