Nothing in this blog has been sponsored in anyway shape or form, that includes accommodation, food and activities. All was paid for by us.
What could be better than a road trip around the South Island of New Zealand? Snow-capped mountains, bluer than blue rivers and lakes, rolling hills, cosy cafes and more Instagram worthy photo spots than you can count to! Yep, this road trip is uber bucket list material and you need to check it get over there ASAP!
This road trip was Oliver’s first overseas trip, and at just 9 weeks of age, Ollie showed us he is a star traveller! Seriously, road tripping with a baby is easy, and New Zealand is probably one of the best countries in the world to do it.
Initially, we were heading over for a family reunion for James’s dads birthday, but figured it would be rude not to extend our trip and fully explore this magical island! Hopefully, after reading this ultimate guide you will have all the low down on the South Island and be prepared for a road trip just as epic as ours (maybe even better!)
Table of Contents
Our Top Tips For A Roadtrip Of The South Island
– Book things in advance! We’re not usually the type to have everything booked and we had a bit of a reality check visiting New Zealand. Some places *cough cough* ‘the highly Instagrammable Onsen Hot Pools in Queenstown’ actually book out a couple of months in advance! Also, some places have limited accommodation and do book up early, although we managed to score decent places for less than $100 per night booking the week before.
– Grab a SIM card when you first arrive from any supermarket (the main two are Countdown and New World). This is a must for us in any destination for the data and the best value prepaid we could find was the 2degrees phone carrier prepaid SIM. For $50 we got one month to use 10GB, which we didn’t go over. However, you’ll find phone reception only really exists in main towns so make sure you don’t expect to be able to search up things while on the road.
– Download Offline Maps. This was an absolute lifesaver due to the whole no reception in the wild thing. A GPS signal will work regardless of if you even have a Sim Card in your phone however you NEED to have downloaded the maps for the area first. We did this simply through the Google Maps App on our phone and we had full GPS directions our entire trip even throughout the remote areas.
– Car VS Camper. Alright, I’ll be upfront, I think the cost of renting a car/staying in hotels would be the same price or similar to renting and camping in a van. However, for us travelling with a 3-month-old baby, we felt we’d have a better trip going with the hotel option. Although some places didn’t have cooking facilities and we had to improvise with a kettle/iron combo to save a bit of coin instead of eating out. Van-life though would have been amazing and New Zealand has extremely relaxed ‘Freedom Camping’ laws allowing you to camp almost anywhere in the wilderness!
– If you do go down the camper van route, the app CamperMate has all paid and freedom camping spots listed. This can save you a world of trouble driving around in circles looking for a spot to spend the night. ()
– Don’t Speed. Seriously the police are out in the absolute middle of nowhere just waiting for you. We passed so many cars pulled over where you’d never think a police car might be.
– Petrol is expensive, be prepared for over $2 NZD per litre and even more on the isolated west coast. Also, make sure to fill up whenever you can, you don’t know how far it might be between you and the next open petrol station!
-In fact, everything is more expensive on the west coast and the small towns. Make sure to try to buy food if you can whenever you go through bigger towns with an actual supermarket, not just a general store.
– Cook for yourself as much as you can. This goes hand in hand with the previous tip. Often in the remote towns, the food options can be pretty limited and of average quality. Save your money and cook for yourself so that you can splurge on the more worthwhile food options when you come across them.
– Clothing for all weather. New Zealand’s weather is a constantly changing phenomena and you can often experience all 4 seasons in the one day. Summers days can often still be quite chilly so make sure you do bring plenty of warmer clothing. To give you an idea, we were there in December (start of Southern Hemisphere Summer) and many mountains were still snow-capped. Especially on the west coast, mornings can still be brisk and foggy!
– Those gorgeous long multi-coloured lupin flowers you see scattered around lakes, they’re only in season for a brief period. So, to avoid disappointment and looking at a bunch of half-dead flowers, this is generally throughout November and December.
– Bug Spray is vital! You might not know about them yet, but sand-flies will become your enemy when you visit NZ. They are these teeny tiny mosquito-like evil critters that will swarm you at any opportunity. We found them especially bad on the west coast, but thankfully they would leave us alone if slathered in bug spray!
Our Route And Stops Along The Way
Our Journey started and ended at J (Christchurch). It then followed letters B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I before returning to J for our flight home.
B. Hanmer Springs
D. Marlborough Sounds
E. Golden Bay (+Takaka / Pohara / Abel Tasman / Wharariki)
G. Fox Glacier / Franz Josef Glacier
H. Queenstown (+Wanaka, Cardrona, Coronet Peak, Glenorchy & Arrowtown)
I. Twizel (Gateway to Aoraki / Mount Cook / Lake Pukaki)
J. Lake Tekapo
Bonus places we missed
Milford Sound -Described by Rudyard Kipling as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, Milford Sound was carved by glaciers during the ice ages. Breathtaking in any weather, the fiord’s cliffs rise vertically from the dark waters, mountain peaks scrape the sky and waterfalls cascade downwards from as high as 1000 metres.Boat cruises – during the day or overnight – are an excellent way to experience the Sound. Adventurous types might also like to head out sea kayaking, diving or flightseeing. To learn more about the local marine life, visit the underwater observatory at Harrison Cove and marvel at the black coral, 11-legged sea stars and delicate anemones.
A/J. Christchurch> Hanmer Springs (1h 45m, 133km)
Our point of entry into New Zealand was Christchurch and our stop for the first night. Christchurch is the South Island’s largest city and an eclectic mix of culture and lifestyle, a picturesque city scattered with heritage buildings, buzzing cafes, gorgeous gardens and stunning museums and art galleries.
To be totally honest we really did not explore Christchurch because we stayed with James’s relatives and enjoyed some family time hanging out and showing off Oliver! The one thing we did do in Christchurch though was pick up our rental car for the trip.
After loads of searching, we found Hitch Rental Cars who were seriously half the price of everyone else. Because of Japan’s tough vehicle laws requiring cars to be relatively new, Hitch import these older vehicles and can rent them for bargain prices. The only slight hitch is a lot of the car’s menus were in Japanese and could not be changed. The car even spoke Japanese to us every now and then and we still have no idea what it was trying to tell us! But we managed to get a large SUV that could carry us and all of our stuff, so we were very happy!
The next day began our big South Island road trip with a leisurely 90 minute drive through the farmland and rolling hills to the famed Hanmer Springs.
B. Hanmer Springs> Nelson (3h 45m, 300km)
Hanmer Springs was a complete surprise to us, a quaint village nestled amongst towering pine forests and surrounded by the snow-capped Southern Alps. We felt as if we had been suddenly transported to a ski village in Canada. The town’s main drawcard is relaxation and adventure! Hanmer Springs name comes from the popular thermal pools located right in the centre of town, the perfect way to relax amongst the calm misty alpine air.
Before reaching the town be sure to check out the stunning Waiau Uwha River. This was our first taste of the insanely blue rivers NZ is known for. It’s the perfect photo spot, fast-flowing ice blue water flanked by rugged cliffs. This is also where you can jetboating through the gorge to expend some pent up adrenaline.
After checking into our cabin, the Springs were our first port of call! The Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa (http://www.hanmersprings.co.nz) has constructed a huge number of pools drawing water from the thermal springs. Each pool features differing temperatures and amounts/types of minerals. They have tried to an extent to blend it into the environment; however, it did feel very sterile and fake to us. But for a relaxing soak, it’s still a great time! We hear there is a bunch of new pools being added and some water park type features so keep an eye on their future developments.
Believe it or not, this was Oliver’s first ever swimming experience, I know right, setting the bar high for future swims!! The only time he cried was when we tried to take him out! Just be aware that when swimming with infants in hot springs, it’s not recommended to go in water any hotter than their body temperature.
If hot springs aren’t your thing, the region also offers a range of outdoor activities such as jet boating, bungy jumping, forest walks, and in winter even go skiing.
Being a small town, food options are limited, and opening hours vary. However, all the restaurants and cafes we saw and dined at were appealing and offered good and decent sized offerings.
Relaxed and ready, we set off the next day for Nelson. The drive between Hanmer Springs and Nelson is out of this world, the first couple of hours is spent winding along mountain roads as you cross the Lewis Pass. The scenery is very Lord of the Rings-esque and you get the feeling that you’re really in the middle of nowhere! At some stage, pull over to the side of the road here and just have a wander around taking in the vast plains and massive mountains whilst getting some killer shots!
A great spot to stretch your legs, grab a coffee (mandatory) and top up the car is Murchison. Another quiet and cute town with not a lot apart from a few shops and cafes. As you continue towards Nelson try and stop in to check out the impressive Lake Rotoroa. Make sure you get the obligatory photo sitting on the pier with the reflection of the mountains on the lake!
As you get closer to Nelson, you’ll notice the scenery change to vibrant orchards and popular vineyards.
C. Nelson > Penzance Bay, Marlborough Sounds (1h 35m, 77.3km)
Nelson has a few claims to fame, but we think the best is that it has some of the highest sunshine hours in New Zealand. That alone is enough to sell us! It is also allegedly home to the geographical centre of New Zealand, ok that one is a bit more boring, but the rest of Nelson isn’t we promise!
Nelson boasts its big and beautiful Tahunanui Beach, trendy cafes, botanical gardens, markets and parks, markets, hikes and a way of life that just feels more casual and relaxed. It is also home to more of James’s cousins and were his dad and family grew up. So we received the proper local tour of the town and did lots of exploring!
We did two short hikes in Nelson giving a great vantage point over the city, the Grampians Walkway (45-70 minutes) and the Centre of New Zealand Track (30-40 minutes). Both are pretty steep in parts and they will definitely get you breaking a sweat. But the views are well worth it with 360-degree views! Try to get up at least one of them if you are in the area to get a great feel for the place.
Another walk amongst nature was through the beautiful Queens Gardens, a large botanical garden in the centre of town. It features a small Chinese garden, meandering ponds and streams as well as stunning flowers and trees. It’s the ideal spot to bring a picnic rug and enjoy the sunshine on a lazy afternoon! We also checked out the Miyazu Japanese Gardens however they were pretty average in comparison to other Japanese gardens we have been to and require a bit more maintenance.
A couple of days later we made the short journey to the magical Marlborough Sounds. The drive there, however, makes it that much more special and secluded. As you need to climb a mountain range and down again, the road is mighty twisty and consists of hairpin turn after hairpin turn. Some spots there was only enough room for one car and you just had to pray nobody was coming from the other side. Couple this with a heavy downpour or rain and it definitely took us a lot longer to arrive than expected!
D. Worlds End, Penzance Bay, Marlborough Sounds > Pohara, Golden Bay (3h 20m, 187km)
If you are unfamiliar with the Marlborough Sounds, they are a network of sunken valleys that make up roughly a fifth of New Zealand’s total coastline! They are an extremely popular spot for New Zealanders and tourists alike, with many locals owning a ‘bach’ in the region (NZ word for a holiday house). Aside from the epicness that comes with being totally immersed in nature, it is also a world-class sauvignon blanc region and scattered with wineries.
The Sounds are made up of loads and loads of different inlets and bays, mountains on all sides, and forests of towering trees and gigantic ferns dominating the landscape. And the water, oh my god, it is insanely clear! It is almost as if you are amongst the first people to discover it, it is that pristine! Penzance Bay is an extremely sheltered and secluded area of the sounds and there is no wonder it was given the name world end!
Right on your doorstep, you are in the prime location for hikes and any number of water activities. Thanks to a large public jetty and boat ramp its simple to get out on the water to go fishing, water-skiing or kayaking! Or if you want to stay closer to shore, there is a floating platform to enjoy swimming out to and hanging out on. Keep an eye out and you might be lucky and spot a giant manta ray swimming past, or maybe even dolphins, seals or orcas!
We stayed at James’s families old holiday house for a massive family reunion celebrating his dads 60th. Co-incidently the property is now available as a rental which was a blast for the past for everyone there! To top it off, one of his fam has a speedboat and took us out exploring loads of the area! If you can organise it, we seriously recommend getting out on the water, it helps to truly visualise the scale and dramatic nature of this incredible place.
A great hike if you wanted to stay firmly on the ground, is the Archers Track walk. This walking and mountain biking track hugs the coastline as you pass various bays, before arriving at Elaine Bay. It’s a 9km 3.5-hour long walk each way, so be prepared, or just walk half of it to get a feel for it!
After hanging out here for a week or so it was, unfortunately, time to move on! We headed back to Nelson to catch up with Paige’s dad and fam who recently there, such a small world! From there we made our way from the northeast to the northwest of the island to Pohara in Golden Bay.
This is a really scenic drive with a few great spots to stretch the legs. First up Mapua Harbour, a small collection of shops, galleries and cafes located right on the water. Why not grab a local fish and chips and enjoy the views! Continuing on, it would be criminal to not stop at The Smoking Barrel in Motueka to sample their insane range of decadent home-made doughnuts! Try and get there early though because by 1 pm they are usually all sold out!
With your belly full, next up is the massive hill-climb up over Takaka Hill, also known as ‘marble mountain’. Don’t underestimate this stretch of road, it is steep and twisting all the way up and down to Golden Bay. The drive down is OUT OF THIS WORLD, the views are absolutely crazy, and you can see for miles and miles. It is the only road in and out of the area, so if you’re not expressly coming for Golden Bay, you will never pass through it. Definitely stop at one of the many signposted parking areas for a bird’s eye view over Tasman Bay, Golden Bay and the ranges of mountains of Kahurangi National Park. Keep an eye out for Canaan Downs Scenic Reserve at the summit, a filming location of the Lord of the Rings!
After winding down the mountain you will pass through Takaka, a staple stop for many in Golden Bay. This small town is lined by shops on just one street and is a bit of a hippy collective full of alternative shops, cafes and galleries. Given the secluded nature of the region, there is a real alternative vibe here and lots of off-grid communities. This is also where you should fill up on petrol and stock up on supplies at the large supermarket.
E. Pohara, Golden Bay > Hokitika (5h 20m, 388km)
What a reward Pohara is for conquering the Takaka Hill! A sweeping long beach giving a vista of the entire naturally sheltered bay. This area, due to its isolation, is referred to by many as New Zealand’s best-kept secret, and suggestions to build an easier route have been vehemently shot down by locals. Although maybe it’s not so secret, as in summer the population explodes from a mere 4000 to 25,000!
This time we stayed with Paige’s family at their holiday house, which was directly overlooking the sparse golden sand beach. It was a complete change of scenery from the tree-lined mountain ranges surrounding the bays of the Marlborough Sounds. We will admit the hot tub on their patio was a major turn-on and watching the sunset over the bay from it – wow! The area felt truly natural and preserved, and we even spotted a seal frolicking in the water just off the beach!
In the region, there are a few good day trips not to be missed. Te Waikoropupu Springs is one of those closes, or as its affectionately known by locals as Pupu Springs. We’re not lying when we say you have never seen water like it, it is the world’s clearest spring water, with a clarity rating of 75m! It is so clear that from the edges you can see the sand dancing as the water flows up from the ground! Unfortunately, being a sacred Maori site swimming isn’t allowed though. However, in the past, they actually used to hold diving competitions there!
The Grove was located just off the road to Pohara, it’s a small pocket of rainforest amongst the farmland filled with unique limestone boulders. It’s like you’ve just teleported to Hawaii! There’s a short walk to the top of the rocky mountain where there is an awesome lookout over Golden Bay
Wharariki Beach is found on the rugged Tasman coast and actually home to one of the desktop wallpapers found on Windows. Upon arrival at the start point for the walk there we were greeted by some overly friendly peacocks and ducks who were very intrigued by Ollie. We then walked up and over the nearby farm until we reached the otherworldly beach. Think massive dunes and rugged rock formations along and in the water. This wind-swept landscape is also home to many baby seals which you can walk right up to! When we say wind-swept, we mean it, the sand was literally sandblasting us as we walked along the beach. The seals definitely made up for this though! If you are into beach horse rides, we hear this is one of the most amazing places in the world to do it.
Another must do it explore Farewell Spit, the 34 km long thin sandspit that wraps itself around the bay. The public is allowed to explore the first 4 km, however, to see the restricted remaining area you must be on a supervised tour. These tours allow you to view the historic lighthouse and the massive gannet colony at the end of the spit.
Although we didn’t have time, we have heard insanely good things about going kayaking in the nearby Abel Tasman National Park. Or if you are feeling extra energetic there’s the famous Heaphy Track, a 4-6 day trek through the pristine NZ wilderness.
From Golden Bay, next up, was venturing down to the wild west coast, staying the night in Hokitika. This was a long drive back over Takaka hill and then through largely farmland. Although the map of our itinerary doesn’t show it, we went to Westport and then along the coast down to Hokitika. This allowed us to check out the famed Punakaiki Pancake rocks, a collection of Jurrasic Park looking stacks of rocks perched on the edge of the coastal cliffs.
We stopped at Buller Gorge to check out the swing bridge over the river. However, we were disappointed to find out it was actually privately owned, and they wanted to charge just to cross the bridge. Definitely avoid this if doing your South Island road trip as you will come across many more equally or more impressive swing bridges! Continuing along the road you will reach the impressive Kilkenny Lookout over the roaring blue waters of the Buller River. From here you can follow the road through a one-way portion that has been hollowed out of the cliff, rock on one side, the river on the other! It’s a good idea to fill up the petrol again at Greymouth before continuing onwards.
F. Hokitika > Fox Glacier / Franz Josef Glacier (2h 6m, 157km)
We stayed just the one night in Hokitika to break up the drive and check out the area. It’s a beachside township, colloquially known as the ‘Cool Little Town’. The area is renowned for its Jade and there are many shops and galleries. We stayed the night just out of town in a fantastic little cottage, super cheap and last minute. Airbnb saves the day once again! Seriously a lot of the crummy motels cost more than what you can get an immaculate private cottage.
Hokitika has been on our bucket list from long before we started planning our NZ trip, why? Hokitika Gorge! The Gorge is roughly 30km out of town and showcases possibly the most amazing milky turquoise blue water in the entire world! You feel like you have fallen into an Instagram filter, it is that freaking amazing! From the carpark, it’s a fairly easy walk, during which you will cross a swing bridge hanging above the cascading water. After taking the obligatory photo there and waiting for others to pass (there’s a maximum limit on the bridge at any time), it’s down to the water’s edge for a better look.
After checking out the gorge, we went into town. It was actually quite buzzing when we were there and had a really cool vibe to it. Although a freezing day we went down to the beach to see the giant ‘Hokitka’ sign made from driftwood.
From Hokitika, it was a breathtaking journey to Fox Glacier, right amongst the enormous mountain ranges. Be prepared that you are going to be driving on some very twisty and narrow roads with a lot of one-lane bridges, and the going can be pretty slow, especially if you get stuck behind trucks or campers. You will first go through the more popular tourist haven town of Franz Josef. This town is buzzing with stores promoting various ways of visiting the Franz Josef Glacier. Trying to avoid the tourist trap, we continued on to the lesser-visited, equally as impressive, Fox Glacier.
G. Fox Glacier > Queenstown (4h 27m, 327km)
Have we mentioned how dam picturesque New Zealand is?! Holy moly, this west coast just keeps getting better and better! It isn’t called glacier country for no reason, this area is living remnants of the ice ages. Making it even more insane is that the glaciers are flanked by temperate rainforest! Both Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are some of the most accessible glaciers in the entire world! You can literally walk right up to them if your feeling energetic! The walk to the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are only 45 and 30 minutes walk to the viewing areas along valley trails!
Really though the best way to truly see them is through one of the many helicopter tours that run in the area. These flights usually land on the glacier so you can have a little walk around, whilst other flights offer heli-hiking or even skydiving options! Unfortunately for us, we missed out on our bucket list moment because the weather became too gnarly for flights, so we opted to walk up to it. But of course with our bad luck, there had been a rockslide over the road towards the carpark and we couldn’t even walk to it! So instead we got down to the river bed where the glacier melt flows and gazed up towards the huge chunk of ice. Even though we weren’t right at the glacier, we were still in awe at such an amazing piece of nature! Definitely returning one day for that helicopter flight though!
The other draw-card staying in Fox Glacier township is Lake Matheson which is found just 6km from town. This lake is like something out of a postcard, actually, it probably is on lots of postcards! The short walk is the perfect start to the morning, you can even grab a to-go coffee from the Matheson Cafe located at the start of the trail, talk about perfect! Lake Matheson is famous for its awesome reflections of the nearby snow-capped mountain ranges, definitely check it out.
The township of Fox Glacier is teeny tiny and only has a handful of cafes and stores, being a teeny town, stuff is pricey! We deliberated long and hard about where to eat after lots of review reading and we were still disappointed. We will be blunt, the food at the Bigfoot Restaurant was terrible, albeit the place had a nice enough atmostphere. We did stop into the Fox Glacier Guiding Cafe for a coffee though and their food looked ok, so who knows you might find something worthwhile.
After checking out the glacier (sort of) and Lake Matheson, the time had finally come for the best stretch of West Coast driving where the road hugs the coast. Do you know the TV show Lost? This reminded us of there, towering cliffs plunging into the turbid ocean below, scattered with Jurassic fernery and palm trees, whilst the road sits precariously on the edge! It’s no wonder this part of the road is often referred to as one of the ultimate coastal road trips in the world.
We stopped in Haast at the general store to pick up a few road trip snacks and continued on to brave the Haast Pass. The Haast Pass is one of the most spectacular portions of road on the whole island and is the only road in the area to cross over the enormous mountains. If it ever happens to be closed you are in for an enormous drive back up to Arthurs Pass and around. It is slow going with lots of switchbacks but a truly amazing mountain climb. Along the way, there’s a couple of stops that you should make time for (you’ll constantly be seeing ‘point of interest’ signs).
Fantail Falls is located mere metres from the roadside carpark so it’s a no brainer to check out. It’s a cool 15 m tall fan-shaped waterfall, with a clear pool of water separating you from it. There are also loads of stacks of rocks all over the place, it seems one person started and everyone just copied! Be aware the sandflies in this region are evil, make sure you cover up with repellant before getting out of the car – and don’t let any in the car!
The other amazing stop is the Blue Pools. Just a short 20 minute downhill stroll through the forest and you will pop out at the pristine crystal clear pools. Their bright blue colour is so vivid it looks dyed, but it’s just the result of minerals being released from the glaciers! If your feeling brave why not jump in for a swim, but be aware it is mighty cold!!
Eventually, you will leave the pass and be faced by the massive Lake Wanaka followed by Lake Hawea. There are quite a few amazing spots to stop on the roadside for a quick photo opportunity! Although we didn’t stay in Wanaka, we passed through just to get a look at the famed Wanaka Tree. We are still in shock and the queue of people waiting to take photos of the tree growing in the lake.
From Wanaka to Queenstown you have two options, long and flat, or steep and short. We took the steep and short option; driving over the Crown Range. On the way you pass through historic Cardrona, make sure to stop in for a refreshment at the super old-school pub. Back to the drive though, oh my gosh, this was probably the scariest drive of our lives. We twisted and turned up and up until we were in the thick of the clouds. The clouds were so thick we could probably only see a few metres in front of us. Then the fun part, trying to drive down a super steep windy mountain. Let’s just say the drive didn’t end up being that much of a shortcut!! After finally getting down it was only a short drive to Coronet Peak where we were staying as our base to explore Queenstown.
H. Queenstown (+Glenorchy & Arrowtown) > Twizel (Mount Cook/Lake Pukaki) (2h 24m, 198.6km)
We chose to stay just ten minutes drive from Queenstown, in the ski village of Coronet Peak. Being Summer, business is not exactly booming in a ski town, so bargain room rates were found. In fact, the hotel we got here was the best of the entire trip and the cheapest by far!
Queenstown is known as an adventure capital, you name the adrenaline activity, it’s there. Jetboating, bungy jumping, mountain biking, snow sports, the list goes on. Us with a fresh 2-month-old baby got up to none of these things, next time for sure! We did, however, love the vibe of the town and walking the streets, especially down by the water’s edge. There’s a plethora of cafes and restaurants and boutique stores to spend the afternoon perusing. We couldn’t help but feel the town would feel next level, especially in the thick of winter with snow blanketing the town.
From Queenstown, there are loads of cool day trips to do. Make sure you drive the 45 minutes or so to Glenorchy. In our opinion, this is the most scenic mind blowing drive you will ever do. The road cruises alongside the Eastern edge of Lake Wakatipu, you will have the most amazing view of all the mountains on the other side of the crystal clear lake. Glenorchy itself is a quaint little town on the edge of the lake. Make sure to visit the little red boathouse and the pier extending into the lake. The views, O M G! Whilst in the area enjoy the Glenorchy Lagoon Boardwalk and breathe in that fresh mountain air!
The other neat area to check out is the historic township of Arrowtown. The town itself only spans a couple of streets and the stores are remnants of an era gone by along the preserved avenue. You’ll find plenty of quaint cafes and local stores. The large drawcard here though is the Arrowtown Chinese Settlement where the Chinese settled during the gold rush of the 1880s. On the short trail, you will pass a handful of restored huts, all made from a variety of materials. You can even step inside and transport yourself back to those day’s truly feeling the hardship of the Chinese immigrants in their modest huts.
Although we didn’t have time, we highly recommend trying to do the Roy’s Peak track. Be aware though this is no walk in the park and probably a serious mission with a child of any age, but it is one heck of a viewpoint! It is one of the most popular day hikes in the region and tops out at 16 km return, so it’s a big day! But you will be rewarded with a breathtaking vista over Lake Wanaka, Mount Aspiring and other nearby snow-capped mountains.
After fully exploring Queenstown, next up was the Mount Cook region. Accommodation in Aoraki National Park, however, was CRAZY expensive, so we stayed 45 minutes away in Twizel. It was yet another scenic drive, this time over the Lindis Pass, surrounded by even more breathtaking mountains and rolling plains.
I. Twizel (Gateway to Mount Cook) > Lake Tekapo (0h 40m, 57.2km)
We stayed in a cute little home we rented perched on the flat plains looking up to the towering mountains. After settling in we slightly backtracked on our journey to Omarama to visit their famed wood fire hot tubs. Cue preparing ourselves a platter and booking the sunset session. Ollie is definitely one spoilt baby with this being his second ever swimming experience! He’s never going to want to have a real bath again! We absolutely loved the intimacy of the private hot tubs, which are refilled with fresh water after every guest, so no harsh chemicals. Plus you even get to control the heat by adjusting the amount of air to the fire. Seeing we missed out on the Queenstown Hot Tubs we were stoked to find a similarly epic experience!
The next morning we woke up bright and early to witness the sun rising over mount cook! Finally, the time had come for one of the expected highlights of our trip. But once again mother nature had other plans and the entire drive the township of Aoraki Mount Cook Village was completely fogged over. We could barely even see the glorious Lake Pukaki on the other side of the road. So with no mountains in view at all, we went on the hunt for the next best thing, a breakfast pie and a coffee! The only place open was the ritzy Hermitage Hotel, and boy are we glad it was! This was possibly the best tasting pie of our entire life, seriously don’t bother with Fergbakery in Queenstown, this place is where it’s at! Eventually, the fog cleared as we sipped our coffee and the glorious view of Mt Cook came into sight.
This township is a paradise for hikers, drawing in people from all of the world for mountain climbing, heli-hiking and other aerial sightseeing options. For us regular folk though, there are a variety of walking trails that begin close to the village. The most popular being the Hooker Valley Trail, and for good reason! Its a 10 km round trip so be prepared for a 3-4 hour hike. You’ll be in absolute awe of the insane landscape as you walk the gradual trail to the glacier lake at the base of Mt Cook. Along the way, you’ll cross three cool swingbridges above the glacial rivers. We were in a rush to get to our flight that evening, so we only walked the first hour or so, but it was absolutely incredible.
It was on the return drive that we got to truly marvel at the mountain road we had driven down earlier that morning. Of course, we waited on the side of the road for that perfect Insta snap in between cars hurtling along! And we finally got to see Lake Pukaki in all its glory, an exquisite opaque turquoise that looks oh so enticing, even if it is freezing! The lake, the mountains and the tussock covered farmland leads to one insane landscape!
Our final destination of the trip had finally come, Lake Tekapo, yet another insanely blue lake, but with a twist. Lake Tekapo and the surrounds are famous for their pastel coloured lupin flowers blanketing the landscape! They only bloom during November and December, so try your best to plan your trip around them. The resulting colour explosion over the fields is like something out of a painting and you’ll find people pulled over to the side of the road all through the region. This is what New Zealand is all about, those epic roadside stops you’ll find all over this insanely beautiful country.
And just like that our trip was over, a mad rush to the airport for a late night flight. Now we look back so fondly of all the amazing memories we have created all over this amazing part of New Zealand, and we have been looking at flights back ever since!
So what are you waiting for, have you started planning a trip??
Top Ten Most Instagrammable Spots To Visit
For the full blog post with more detail click here.
- Hokitika Gorge / Blue Pools (Some of the most insanely blue water you will ever see)
- Lake Tekapo in full bloom and Lake Pukaki (Ok we lied, these waters might possibly be even more vibrant but maybe even better because of the explosions of colour from the wild lupin flowers covering the shore)
- Glenorchy and the drive to it from Queenstown (Quite possibly the most scenic 1 hour drive you will ever experience)
- Hooker Valley Trail at Mount Cook (You came to NZ for the mountains right, then seeing Mt Cook is a necessity, this track carves through a valley between the enormous peaks)
- Glaciers (Well, we assume, it was bad weather so we couldn’t actually go on them, but a heli tour to them is seriously bucket list worthy)
- Hot Springs and Hot Tubs (If you don’t visit at least one of these you’ve done NZ an injustice as soaking in a hot pool in the misty mountain air is EPIC, there are springs and hot tubs located all over the South Island)
- Speedboating through the Marlborough Sounds (No explanation needed here, an almost Jurassic landscape surrounding the pristine water)
- Baby seal spotting at Wharariki Beach (On this super isolated beach you’ll find a haven for breeding seals and its nearly impossible not to see them if you visit)
- Pupu Springs (The clearest springwater in the entire world, even clearer than Antarctic water!)
- Punakaiki Pancake Rocks (Again sticking with the Jurassic theme of the Marlborough Sounds, these rocks stacked in pancake-like layers are a bizarre sight)
Our Favourite Cafes and Restaurants
These are a collection of the notable places that we ate. We only highlight Nelson and Queenstown as they are where we dined out the most, and had the most food options. The smaller towns often had a limited range of restaurants that were in general overpriced for what they were.
Make sure you have a meal at the waterfront on Nelson Harbour. There are a few options all apparently excellent ranging in price from gourmet to fish and chips. We ate at The Styx as a big group for James’s birthday and couldn’t fault it.
We’ll be the first to admit that we are burger aficionado’s, so when we saw Burger Culture, we knew we had to get one. The two of us always get two different ones and cut them in half so that we can sample more of the menu. Although we are spoilt living in Melbourne where some of the best burger restaurants are, Burger Culture offered up a pretty darn tasty burger.
The Kitchen reminded us of those cafes you find in Seminyak, Bali. A minimalistic open space perfect for blogging (with fast internet) whilst eating the best of beautiful wholefoods.
Another recommendation is coffees at River Kitchen. It’s a cute little café with decent coffees, right on the Maitai River in town – a local favourite.
In an expensive ski town, it can be hard to find a quality cheap meal. But find some we did! Right on the waterfront, you will find the aptly named Pub on Wharf. A well-presented pub with an awesome outdoor area overlooking the water. But the best part? All of their mains are $20, and actually really tasty! Think the likes Pork Belly, Steak, Salmon, Thai Curry, Ribs, Lasagna, Chicken Parmigiana and more. Yep, this is quality pub fare at a price unlike most restaurants in Queenstown, plus its right on the water…
It wouldn’t be a trip to Queenstown without visiting Fergs. Fergburger has developed a sort of cult status amongst those travelling to Queenstown and people will often ask if you have been or are going. You’ll often find a queue of 20 people out the door and up the footpath at 10 am! This burger store has a huge variety of tasty locally sourced burgers. Are they worth the sometimes half an hour wait? Probably not, but they are still a decent burger. Hot tip instead is to phone through your order and pick it up instead! There’s also the equally as popular Fergbakery next door serving up a variety of baked goods.
Patagonia Chocolates is a must visit at least once on your trip to Queenstown. They have several locations but the most prominent is down on Beach St by the waters edge on the wharf. They don’t just serve up decadent deserts and varieties of chocolate but have some absolutely mouth-watering ice cream choices. Definitely, the ideal spot to stop for a coffee and cheeky desert at any time of the day!
Special mention goes to the amazing Pies we had at the Hermitage Hotel in Aoraki Mount Cook Village. We seriously still look back to it as our favourite pies ever.
Where We Stayed In Each Spot
We stayed in a mix of with family, Airbnb’s and hotels. We found from our trip that often things book up close to the dates if you are travelling in peak period and you may not be left with too many options, especially in the smaller regions.
Airbnb was a saviour in that there are loads and loads of really nice entire homes available for rent at the same price, or often less than the cruddy motels! The bonus being you often get a kitchen and laundry If you have been living under a rock, heres a link to sign up for Airbnb that will automatically give you $55 off your first booking, whatever and wherever that may be.
We stayed with family, so no recommendation for where we stayed. Although we’re sure they would love to be hit up with thousands of requests to stay with them haha!
Want to check out all of the best places to stay in Christchurch? Check here to see all your options!
Set amongst mature trees and surrounded by the Southern Alps, this beautifully restored local landmark has been transformed into a resort with outdoor, tennis and petanque courts. Guests at Heritage Hotel can choose from a range of hotel options from hotel rooms to self-contained villas. We stayed in one of the modern villas, they are incredibly roomy and have an incredible vista over a small lake and the mountains surrounding you. The hotel was in a prime location smack bang in the middle of town, and 5 minutes walk from the hot springs.
If you are searching for something even more luxurious, we recommend checking out The St James Premium Accommodation.
Want to see more of the best places to stay in Hanmer Springs? Check here to see all your options!
Again, here we stayed with family, so no recommendation for where we stayed.
Want to check out all of the best places to stay in Nelson? Check here to see all your options!
If you read through our section on the Marlborough Sounds, you’d have heard that we stayed in James’s Dad’s old holiday home. Long ago sold, but now actually available to rent. It has direct water frontage and it’s own private jetty, if you hang around down there you’ll see loads of fish and even sting rays swimming by! The home itself is super cosy and large, with loads of bedrooms and a massive deck looking down over the ocean! Surrounded by lush greenery and at the end of a one-way street, you will be ensured pure privacy. Be aware you are in a super remote area and phone reception/internet is extremely limited, but it just adds to the pristine wilderness vibe!
Want to see more of the best places to stay in the Marlborough Sounds? Check here to see all your options!
Again, here we stayed with family, so no recommendation for where we stayed.
Want to check out all of the best places to stay in Golden Bay? Check here to see all your options!
Airbnb came to the rescue here. There was only a handful of crummy motels available when it came to booking. But then we found this gem on Airbnb. A modern 1 bedroom self-contained unit set on a large property just ten minutes drive out of Hokitika. Equipped with everything you could need we cooked ourselves up a delicious dinner instead of spending money eating out. There’s also a washing machine and dryer for that mid-road trip overload of washing! Even better, this place was reasonably priced and much better than the crummy motels!
Want to see more of the best places to stay in Hokitika? Check here to see all your options!
This hotel wasn’t necessarily anything super flash, however, it was a cheap(ish) place to rest our heads in an otherwise expensive town. Its located about 1.5 km from Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson and has views of the nearby mountains. The rooms are quite basic but have the standard tea/coffee facilities and a fridge.
If you are searching for something even more luxurious, we recommend checking out Distinction Fox Glacier – Te Weheka Boutique Hotel.
Want to see more of the best places to stay in Fox Glacier? Check here to see all your options!
This was definitely our best value for money hotel pick. The town of Coronet Peak is at the base of, yep you guessed it, Coronet Peak. One of the main ski-fields of the region. This means that in summer, the room’s struggle to fill up. However, it’s seriously only 7 minutes from Queenstown. So, if you have a car, then it makes total sense to save some money and stay here! But they do have a free shuttle bus to and from Queenstown if need be.
The hotel rooms are all well appointed with a large flat-screen with satellite tv as well as tea/coffee facilities and a minibar fridge. Looking out the window you will be presented with stunning vistas of the nearby mountains. There’s also a restaurant for breakfast and dinner, 2 bars, a games arcade and a bowling alley! In terms of location, it’s actually pretty ideal in that its just 1 km from the Shotover River Jet area which offers loads of outdoor adventure activities. The Swiss-Belresort is also right across the road from the incredibly popular Onsen Hot Pools (although remember to book way in advance for them).
Want to see more of the best places to stay in Queenstown? Check here to see all your options!
We stayed in a super cheap Airbnb here, however the property is no longer listed on Airbnb. If we had planned more in advance we would have loved to have stayed at The Hermitage which is right at the foot of Mount Cook. The views from the luxurious rooms here are out of this world!
Want to see more of the best places to stay in Twizel? Check here to see all your options!