Ultimate South Island New Zealand Road Trip
Bill and I just returned from the most amazing two-week vacation in New Zealand and Australia and today I’m here to spill the beans on how to make the most of a seven-day road trip in New Zealand, specifically on the South Island. Don’t worry, I’ll get to Australia in another post, so for now, it’s time for the Kiwi highlights. I’m a complete over planner – I love to pre-book hotels and flights, research activities and have back up activities at the ready just in case something goes south. All of these qualities are the complete opposite of how most people plan a road trip. In keeping with a we’ll go where the wind takes us attitude, we didn’t prebook every holiday park, but I at least researched options close to our points of interest.
For purposes of this post, I will chronicle our actual road trip and the stops we made, but in future posts about each town, I will detail out different accommodations, activities and restaurants that I researched but may or may not have had a chance to visit. That being said, we rented a campervan for our trip, but you can definitely plan something very similar just renting a car and staying in cabins at the holiday parks rather than in the campervan.
Day 1: Christchurch – Lake Tekapo
We took the last flight from Sydney to Christchurch on Saturday evening and stayed at Sudima Hotel, a 5 minute walk or 2 minute shuttle ride from the airport. They have a free and convenient shuttle to pick you up and will even take you over to the various campervan rental sites, about a 5 minute drive from the airport and hotel. We woke up bright and early to pick up our campervan at 8am on Sunday, then started the process of going grocery shopping and packing up the campervan with the belongings we would need for the next week. Luckily, the van had tons of space, so it was easy to find a home for all our clothes, groceries and toiletries. We finally got on our way about 1pm, a bit later than we had planned and after a few navigational difficulties, we made it to Lake Tekapo around 4:30pm. We spent the night at Lake Tekapo Holiday Park and let me tell you they had the best amenities out of any holiday park! Our campsite had a gorgeous view of Lake Tekapo and the facilities included several kitchens, with at least 6 stoves, sinks and grills. There was also a lounge to hang out and watch TV, if you so chose! If we could go back in time, we would have tried to leave Christchurch a little earlier, so that we could drive directly to Mount Cook instead of stopping in Lake Tekapo. Lake Tekapo is a gorgeous spot and worth a look, but if you are short on time, skip it in favor of Mount Cook or some of the other gorgeous lakes on the South Island.
Day 2: Lake Tekapo – Mount Cook
The drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook was a short hour and a half, so we took our time getting organized and made it to Mount Cook in time for lunch. Our big activity was supposed to be the Hooker Valley Track hike, but due to server flooding, most of the path was closed. Since the hike was closed, we did a few smaller hikes including the Kea Point hike and the Tasman Glacier Lookout hike. At Mount Cook, there are not any powered holiday parks, while we originally planned to freedom camp here, the cool temperatures and inability to use our electric heater drove us to seek refuge in Twizel for the night. The trek to Twizel was an hour and a half, but it was on our way to the next destination, and therefore, less driving the following day. Bill had been in Australia for a week before I arrived, so he was in dire need of doing laundry, so it worked out that we stopped in Twizel and had plenty of amenities at Twizel Holiday Park.
Day 3: Twizel – Valley Views Glamping
From Twizel, we headed out to Lake Ohau, to try to see the gorgeous blue hue, but due to bad navigation, on my part, we ended up on the other end of the lake, with just a dirt road looping back to the town. Ooops! Because of my poor navigation skills and a fog layer that would not let up, we gave up on our lake exploration and headed south to Omarama, where we happened across the Omarama Hot Tubs – we pulled over and luckily they had space for us to relax and unwind for 90 minutes. This was definitely the perfect escape and was a great way to kill time before heading to our next stop – Valley View Glamping, located in Otiake.
Run, don’t walk to Valley View Glamping. We reserved a gorgeous Geo Dome for the night and it was one of the highlights of our New Zealand road trip. There are not enough kind words to describe the owners, Amber and Patrick. They go above and beyond the ensure you have an amazing time on their property. Each geo dome is expertly decorated, they have an amazing communal kitchen and dining area for their guests to use, as well as picturesque outdoor baths for maximum relaxation. If that’s not enough, they even have several add-ons you can book prior to arriving – we opted for their homemade 3 course dinner and reserved hour-long massages in our geo dome, with their in-house masseuse. If this place doesn’t exude relaxation, I don’t know what else could?!
Day 4: Valley Views Glamping – Wanaka
The next day we were sad to leave Valley Views, but at least it was a quick 90 minute drive to Wanaka to visit the famous #thatwanakatree, a tree that grows in the middle of Lake Wanaka. Wanaka is a quaint town, with a ton of foodie options. This was the first town, where we ate all three meals at restaurants, rather than in the campervan, so that’s saying something! After making our way to Wanaka, we stopped for lunch at Big Fig, think Lemonade, and I loved their selection of braised meats, roasted veggies and various seasonal salads. After lunch, we ventured over to take some photos of #thatwanakatree and I was shocked at how small the tree actually is, but the fact that it is legit growing out of the water and creates an amazing mirrored reflection in the water is still a sight to be seen. At this point, it was only 1pm, and way too early to check into our holiday park, so we decided to drive to the Blue Pools Hike, about an hour and a half north of Lake Wanaka. While it was a long and windy drive, the pools were a gorgeous shade of blue and was worth the short hike, even in the rain. We made it back to the holiday park and had a lovely dinner at Francesca’s Italian Bistro. Our next day was going to be the longest drive (five plus hours!!), so we turned in early, so we could get an early start on Day 5.
Day 5 & 6: Wanaka – Milford Sound
We started off our morning with a delicious breakfast at Kai Waka Pai, an adorable coffee shop with delicious brunch options. They also have very yummy sandwich and side selections in their chilled case, we got two sandwiches and soba noodle salad to enjoy for lunch while on our seemingly never-ending road trip to Milford Sound. Number one reason to rent a car instead of a campervan – Crown Range – because we rented a campervan, our rental company forbade us from driving on this stretch of the highway, increasing our drive from Wanaka to Queenstown by at least an hour.
About three and half hours into our drive, we finally hit the picturesque views we were anticipating – as we drove through Te Anau (the last place to grab gas and provisions before hitting Milford Sound) we finally saw the huge cliffs and mirrored lakes we had heard so much about. As we continued to drive onward, we stopped at every view point to take in the gorgeous scenery and stand in awe of this natural wonder. From Te Anau, it took us about two hours to make it to the foreshore of Milford Sound. We spent the next hour walking around the foreshore before heading five minutes back down the road to the Milford Sound Lodge (Holiday Park). Well equipped with two kitchens and a dining room, this was the most scenic holiday park at which we stayed – literally it was a rainforest! But beware, there is no wifi, you have to say goodbye to social media for your stay in Milford Sound.
We tried to schedule a last minute helicopter tour and glacier landing, but due to inclement weather, it wasn’t safe. It’s definitely on our bucket list if we make it back down here! Later in the afternoon, we boarded an overnight cruise through Real Journeys. Normally, these cruises have 80+ overnight guests, but since we came at the tail end of the season, there were only 20 of us on board! It was such a treat to be one of so few people on the sound at one time. After leaving the dock, they took us on a half tour of Milford Sound, and brought us eye to eye with some HUGE waterfalls! Once we found our mooring for the night, we had the opportunity to kayak around the cove or take a boat ride to further explore the area. As it was rainy and wet, we opted for the boat ride and had a great time exploring the area we would call home for the night. There was an option to take a dip in the sound post activity and you bet your lucky stars, Bill and I took a 5 second dip in the water. It may have been 14 degrees Celsius, but when else can we say we went swimming in a sound? Needless to say, we opted for very hot showers before we sat down for a delicious catered meal.
Day 7 & 8: Milford Sound – Queenstown
The next morning we had an early call for breakfast so we could enjoy the rest of our tour of Milford Sound before docking at 9am. We came to find out that t rains almost 200 days a year in Milford Sound, so it’s not uncommon to experience a rainy day while on the sound. When it rains, the naturally occurring waterfalls become huge and new waterfalls are created because there is so much run off. It truly was wonderful to see so much water and greenery on these massive almost ten thousand foot rock walls. We explored several more waterfalls and took a trip out to the Tasman sea before heading back to the foreshore.
After our ship returned, we had a quick window to head to Queenstown. The activity I most looked forward to (and booked before we even had flights to Australia) was a trip to the Onsen Hot Tubs, 15 minutes from Queenstown. We buckled up and made it to Queenstown (3 ½ hours) with just 30 minutes to spare before our onsen appointment. We opted for the Tandaki, which included bubbly and ice cream, along with 60 minutes of soaking in pure bliss. Now that we were relaxed, we decided to return our campervan a day early, so we could be free to explore Queenstown all day before our afternoon flight on Sunday. It was a relatively easy process and we were out of Maui rental before they closed and in an Uber to the Sofitel in Queenstown.
We checked into our hotel and discovered we were walking distance from the gondola. We decided to head straight to the gondola, in order to take advantage of golden hour at the top. We ended up booking the gondola and luge package, with three luge rides each. If you have time, make sure to check out the luge, it was a relatively short course, but so fun to be wild and carefree, especially since I have pretty much zero interest in the extreme sports that Queenstown is known for, like bungee jumping and sky diving. After working up an appetite, we went on a hunt for Taco Medic, which had amazing tacos – we split three different options, which were all delicious! Since you can’t visit Queenstown without trying a Ferg Burger, we made that our next stop! The line wasn’t too crazy since we came during the Fall, but we still waited about 20-30 minutes for our number to be called. Overall, it was good and reasonably priced, but it’s no in-n-out…
For our last day in New Zealand, we took it slow, and had an amazing breakfast at the Sofitel – literally how is this included in the rate? They have your normal hotel breakfast options, breads and pastries, with eggs and sausage, and the whole continental spread. But IN ADDITION, you can order from their breakfast menu – we’re talking French Toast, Eggs Benny, the whole nine yards! After stuffing our faces with said amazing breakfast, we walked around town and did a little shopping. Before heading to the airport, we stopped for one last bite at Bespoke Kitchen – we ended up splitting a 12 hour smoked brisket burger and pure gold smoothie bowl. It was the perfect end to our New Zealand vacation!