Disclosure: Some posts contain referral links (much love if you use them!). Opinions expressed here are the author's alone and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by any entities.
After a whirlwind (and amazing!) 4 days on the North Island, it was time to take our trek to the South Island. We were so excited for this next part of our trip, as we had heard SO many great things about the South Island. From everything there is to do – extreme sports to leisure activities – and everything there is to see – Mount Cook, and other natural wonders like Milford Sound – we hit the ground running.
Here’s our itinerary of how we spent our 7 days!
Day 1: Ferrying Around
We hopped on a morning ferry (with our rental car and all) from Wellington to make our trek to the South Island. The ferry takes about 3 to 3.5 hours between the two islands and is really beautiful. Even on our overcast and pretty grey day we still managed to see some beautiful landscapes (and dolphins!). A majority of the trip is spent pretty close to land sailing through the Cook Strait, which makes for some incredible landscapes that slide on by the ferry. We trekked all through the ferry to find a prime spot and determined there really wasn’t a bad seat in the house. As long as there is a window, there are sights to be seen!
Once we arrived in Picton, we immediately set out towards where we were staying that night. It was a 3 and a half hour drive away and we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to make spontaneous stops along the way. It was along this drive that it also started pouring rain – so we didn’t make a ton of detours, but the drive through the mountains was beautiful. Think foggy, grey, mountainous, mysterious, swirly and ominous. All the feelings. The mountains + clouds + rain combo have such a strong and dark beauty to it, and we loved soaking it all in.
We drove along Highway 6 towards the West coast and made good time, so instead of heading straight to our accommodations in Charleston, we decided to go explore the Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki, which was just a 30-minute drive south down Highway 6. The Pancake Rocks are incredible, and one of those a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words moments. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before – if you’re making a trek down or up Highway 6 we definitely recommend this stop! There is a walking trail loop that takes you out to the rocks and back, which takes about 20 minutes. We ending up spending a lot more time out there because we were so mesmerized by the rocks and the waves crashing into the blowholes! Also, succulent grass. Yup, it’s a thing.
Day 2: Franz Josef
Our plan for the morning was to walk to the Pororari River Track. I had seen some amazing pictures of a beautiful river with moss covered rocks all around – just a sea of green! Pretty much my reaction when I saw that picture was “Must. Find. This. Place.” So I tracked it down and figured out it was near the end of the River Track. Needless to say, I woke up just a little excited this day. BUT we got 20 minutes into the walk before being met by a closed track sign. Womp, womp, womp. So with a little less pep in my step, we just walk back to our car. The Pororari River Track is just a couple minutes drive from the Pancake rocks, so we decided to stop there again (we now had the time, haha) before heading south. It was the impromptu stop here where we discovered that there was actually something called the Punakaiki Cavern – a cavern at the side of the road that you can just walk in and explore. We decided to go for it and explore. The signs out front of the cavern advise that you have a good flashlight or headlamp so you can explore more, and since we were super prepared we used our phone flashlights. So, yeah, they weren’t the greatest, but we did manage to navigate our way into the cave and back out.
After that, we jumped back in the car and continued the drive down to the Franz Josef Glacier. The drive was a beautiful, curvy (so, so windy) road that swings back and forth between the coast and mountain valleys. Again, we hit some rain and overcast skies (are you sensing a pattern here, haha!), but once we arrived in Franz Glacier we decided to hit up the Glacier Walk anyways – and boy are we glad we did! This was probably our most favourite hike we did on our entire trip. It was sprinkling a bit during the walk but not in a way that impacted any of our enjoyment (so don’t let bad weather stop you from doing this hike! Unless maybe it’s downpouring, then you might want to reconsider). On your way towards the glacier, you pass rivers, mountains, waterfalls, and large rocky landscapes. The track is well marked out and a pretty easy walk. And at the end of it, you’re greeted with a view of Franz Josef Glacier! You get to be within 750 meters of it – but not any closer because large chunks of ice the size of school buses break off of it regularly! It’s about a 45 minute – 1-hour walk to the glacier, and since the track isn’t a loop you’re taking the same way back. But again, it was SO beautiful, even on the grey and overcast day we didn’t mind at all!
After a cafe stop for hot chocolate and coffee to get out of the rain for a bit, we drove to Fox Glacier where we were staying in a holiday park for the night. This was our first experience in a New Zealand holiday park, and it served us well! We had are own little cabin, which was nice since we could make something hot for dinner instead of all the sandwiches we had been eating the days before! It wasn’t anything fancy, but it had everything we needed.
Day 3: Ork Attacks
Our goal for the next day was driving to Wanaka, but also making a lot of stops along the way at waterfalls and pretty sights. Our first stop was at a beach that we randomly saw on the side of the road, it had a lookout tower and a river that flowed out into the ocean. Beautiful, right? Well, it was also here that we had our first encounter with sand flies – nasty little black bugs that want to eat you up. Basically, real life tiny orcs, because #newzealand. We lasted about 5 minutes before running back to the car because the bugs were so bad!
After escaping the horde of mini orcs, we drove through the Haast Pass and made our first waterfall stop of the day at Roaring Billy Falls. It was a pretty quick walk from the car through a rainforest, and then out onto a rock field with the waterfalls on the other side. The falls were beautiful but again, the orc flies kept us from staying too long! Next up along the way, we stopped at Thundercreek Falls, and then again further down the road at Fantail Falls. And then we got to my personal favorite of the day – the Blue Pools, known for its extremely blue and clear water. There are no waterfalls here, but they have suspension bridges over the river where you can get a really good glimpse at the water, and if you are daring, take a jump in! It was a pretty cold day, so Ian wasn’t feeling taking a dip, but he said next time.
Next up it was on to Wanaka, and this drive was gorgeous! You drive along the edges of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, and it is breathtaking. Our first stop in Wanaka was the Wanaka Lavender Farm, and although it was off-season and there were only a few rows of lavender in bloom, the entire farm is very scenic and worth a visit! From there we enjoyed just wandering the town (the weather was great and the sun was out!!). We then headed to our favorite Airbnb of our entire trip. It was a cute little house sitting on the banks of Lake Hawea – we couldn’t believe our view!
Later that evening, we headed back to Wanaka to go to Cinema Paradiso and see Black Panther. Cinema Paradiso was really neat – it is an old school movie theater featuring lots of comfy couches that you can watch your movie from, and also an intermission break where you can grab a warm cookie!
Day 4: Hike to end all hikes
With a good weather forecast for the day, we decided to hike Roy’s Peak in Wanaka. We had read it was a hard hike, but also well worth the views from the top. And boy, were both of those things true. We were barely 10 minutes in and I was already having to catch my breath and make stops. The hike takes about 3 hours to the top on a well-worn path. The hard part comes from it being all uphill and continual switchbacks as you climb the mountain. There were quite a few times where I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it to the top. But we (ahem I*, Ian seemed to be fine ;)) pushed through to the top, and although clouds had rolled in the views were still beautiful! But don’t be fooled, the going down can be just as hard as going up – especially for your knees!
After completing Roy’s Peak, we drove towards Queenstown. Along the way, we made a stop in Arrowtown, a historic gold mining town with lots of cute shops and boutiques. From there it was onward to Queenstown and stopping at Erik’s Fish and Chips for dinner. We are both big fans of fish and chips and it is usually one of our must-do’s in foreign countries – and Erik’s was great!
Day 5: Milford Sound
We’re not going to dive into a lot of detail here because we’ll probably dedicate a whole blog post to this day in the near future. But wow, are we ever glad we went to Milford Sound. It was one of those things that people told us we HAD to do. We thought about driving ourselves (about a 4-hour drive from Queenstown) but ended up going with a bus company that ran day long trips from Queenstown. We’re so glad we did this because it gave us a break from driving ourselves, and the insights and knowledge that our guide had were really interesting and neat! We left at 7:30 in the morning and didn’t get back till 8 PM, so it is an all-day trip! On the drive to Milford Sound, you drive through Fiordland National Park, which was absolutely beautiful. It had been raining the day before we went (and a little bit on the day), which was actually a great thing because that meant that the mountains had hundreds of waterfalls flowing down the sides of them. Hundreds. It was incredible.One of our favorite parts of the drive was the view once you get out of the Homer Tunnel – the area is called Valley of a Thousand Waterfalls, and man, that description was accurate!
Once we made it to Milford Sound, we hopped on our cruise ship (which is all part of your ticket and trip), for our tour of the actual Fiords. The cruise will take you along Milford Sound all the way to where it meets the Ocean and then back again. Along the way, you’re greeted with breathtaking views. The day we went was a bit rainy and although you could stay inside the boat, we decided to just bundle up and enjoyed most of the trip from on deck.
Day 6: Luge Races
Going into this day we didn’t really have too many things planned except for that we were exploring Queenstown and were also going to eat at Fergburgers for dinner. I had originally really wanted to go to the Onsen Spa Pools, but I left booking to the last minute and it ended up being all booked up. So instead we wandered downtown Queenstown (it was a beautiful sunny day!), hit up some thrift shops and then did the Skyline Luge. The luge tracks on Ben Lomond Mountain, so with your ticket to the luge you also got to ride up the Skyline Gondola to the track. We had such a fun afternoon trying to beat each other down the track. Ian beat me by just one race! He was surprised it was so close. I wasn’t 😉
Then it was back down the Gondola to grab Fergburgers! We had heard amazing things and knew it was the place that we wanted to check out in Queenstown. We got there fairly early (around 5), so the line wasn’t too long. It was delicious, and everything we were hoping it would be!! We then grabbed some gelato from Mrs. Ferg’s and went for a stroll through the Queenstown Gardens before heading back to our hotel for the night.
Day 7: Rain, Rain, Rain
This was one of the longest driving days of our whole trip. We left Queenstown in the morning to start our drive to Christchurch, which was about a 6-hour total drive. We had planned to make some stops along the way at Lake Pukaki, and Lake Tekapo, but this was probably the rainiest day we had yet! The drive was still beautiful, but the rain kept us from getting out and stopping anywhere for longer than a couple minutes. Once we made it to Christchurch we grabbed dinner, dropped off our rental car, and then just packed for our flight early the next morning.
Day 8: 1.5 days of flights
Headed to the airport to catch the first of our 4 flights back home!