We spent more time planning this trip than any other so far. The reason is we had only 5 days and we were determined to see everything. We would just stare at our list of places to see, but could not eliminate a single one. So a leisure trip around the island was not an option; it became a fast paced road trip taking us through the highlights of the South Island of New Zealand and maximizing every moment.
First, there are two ways to do this road trip. One option is to rent a camper van or small RV to circle the island, which seems very economical, but means you are sort of camping every night. There are road side camp sites and clean, truly clean, public restrooms throughout the island so it is a good option. We, however, chose to do this trip by car and stay in a motel or apartment each night. It’s probably a little more expensive, but much more comfortable. It went like this…
We fly into Christchurch late in the afternoon, cram our luggage into our tiny rental car, and plug in the GPS. We are off to explore, driving on the opposite side of the road and shifting gears by hand…all while mistakenly turning the windshield wipers on before finding the turn signal at nearly every intersection. (It’s comical at first, but as the driver it becomes a little humiliating after a while.)
As we make our way out of Christchurch, the first thing we notice are the endless rolling green hills. The continuous pastures filled with mostly sheep and some with cows stretch as far as we can see in every direction. We had no idea there were so many farm animals, more specifically sheep which I later read outnumber people by as much as 12:1 in New Zealand. I’ll put it like this: if you read a label and it says New Zealand wool, they are not lying. (The label may say made in China where it might be sewn, but the wool is definitely from New Zealand). All this leads us to the snow capped mountains that we are on course to reach.
We stop at an authentic little roadside tavern called Jacksons Tavern and enjoy excellent burgers to fuel the adventure. Actually, I think it is the only one we pass on our way to Arthur’s Pass, but definitely recommended. We get back on the road just before dark to make our way through the Southern Alps and down the western coast. This part of New Zealand is one of the wettest places on earth dumping such a tremendous amount of snowfall on the top of these mountains to create the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers that are able to creep down to less than 1000ft above sea level.
It is raining as we arrive at our motel and tuck in for the night. We get up early the next morning with high hopes for our scheduled Heli-Hike on the Franz Josef Glacier, but it comes as no surprise that we are one of the more than half of these glacier hikes that get cancelled due to inclement weather. We don’t even get off the ground and it is even too wet and rainy to try to hike the trails at Franz Josef.
We have no time to wait for a clear day, so we get moving early…sort of a theme for the week. We stop for a much needed cappuccino and breakfast in the tiny town of Franz Josef on our way out and discuss our unexpected head start to our next destination.
“Look! There must be a look-out up there, lets follow the signs,” Whitney tells me as we near Fox Glacier only a few kilometers down the road. It turns out we are able to do a self-guided hike up the glacier bed to a perfect viewing point of the edge of Fox Glacier creeping over the ridge. It is an easy 30min hike along the river up to a grand viewpoint of the leading edge of the glacier. It’s so amazing to see the tropical vegetation within walking distance of a glacier.
“Next stop: Queenstown,” I say as we shift into gear. Not long after we get on the road the clouds begin to clear and the sun starts to shine through as we come to the edge of Bruce Bay. I find the first opportunity to park and go straight out to the ocean’s edge.
Whitney coaxes me back to the car with a few snacks (she knows I’d somehow be in the water either by accident or on purpose, who knows.) Then we are back on the road, briefly stopping further along at Knight’s Point to take a few more postcard photos.
We continue to drive through the mountain ridge and even pass a few reindeer farms before arriving at two glacier carved lakes, Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea that formed millions of years ago during the ice age. Whitney and I agree we are definitely missing out on exploring these lakes as we are only able to snap a few pictures while fighting the gusty winds on the shorelines. We drive through the town of Wanaka simply wishing there was time to spare. I’ll admit the beauty is absolutely breathtaking and the variety of hiking trails around both lakes would take days to enjoy. (We’ll be back)
Leaving the town of Wanaka we take the scenic drive through the Cardrona Valley. All along the roadside we are able to see images that have been projected on the big screen for the Hobbit; it’s such picturesque landscapes. We eventually come over the last ridge before winding down the mountain roads and there is the priceless view of Lake Wakatipu with Queenstown at its edge. This adrenaline junkie’s destination gets its own article. (See An Adrenaline Junkie’s Destination in Queenstown, New Zealand)
Our self-made itinerary allows us to stay 2 nights in Queenstown before we get back on the road at an early 6am to make our way to one of the highlights of our trip, Milford Sound. Many people make this a day trip from Queenstown with one of the travel companies, but after considering it’s at least 5hrs each way and our already tight schedule, we decide to stay overnight in Milford Sound. At this point I feel as if I’m going full speed and making the most of it all while stopping to take in the sights. Our first stop on the way to Milford Sound is a little town called Te Anau, where we stop for coffee and to feed some alpacas, then leap through the valley as we speed along; then hike a few short trails leading to the Mirror Lakes and later some of the most beautiful waterfalls.
We arrive at Milford Sound Lodge to check-in; then it’s straight down to the port for our late afternoon Milford Sound Cruise with Southern Discoveries. An excellent guide takes us through the sound sharing the history of the area and even getting us up close and personal with Stirling Falls. The boat makes a stop at the Discovery-Centre and Underwater Observatory to explore what’s underneath before heading back to port. The cruise through the sound is the centerpiece of the trip with beauty that leaves no question that this should be named the Eighth Wonder of the World as called by Rudyard Kipling in the past.
That evening we settle into our room at the Milford Sound Lodge set along the shore of the Cleddau River. It’s one of only a few options for lodging in the area aside from your very own camper van. It has brand new bungalow type units on the river’s edge. “Glamping,” Whitney called it.
We get a good night’s rest then we are back on the road extra early the next morning to make it to an afternoon nature tour in Dunedin (Basically we have to get all the way across the country by 2pm). Again we observe the beauty of the countryside with green pastures and rolling hills filled with so so many sheep for most of our drive. We sure cut it close, only stopping for lunch along the way, but finally make it to our next motel with a little time to spare. We are picked up by our guides from Elm Wildlife Tours for the Otago Penninsula Encounters Tour. This takes us to the Royal Albatross Center where we were lucky enough to see a few Albatross flying around Taiaroa Head and get a quick lesson in the habits of these birds.
Next we head down to Pipikaretu Beach to see a few different animals in their natural habitat. We see the Blue Penguins and the Yellow-eyed Penguins, two of the rarest penguins in the world. We observe a number of sea lions lounging in the sand before hiking back up the ridge to watch a large community of fur seals play along the shore line in shallow sea pools below.
The tour ends around 9pm and we are tired and hungry as expected from this long day. We eventually find ourselves in the Octagon in downtown Dunedin. It’s described as a focal point of the city’s café culture. This evening a number of bars are hosting great live music and we share a few drinks and split some appetizers for dinner as we relax from the long day’s drive and hours of hiking. We make it back to the motel around midnight and settle in for our final night in New Zealand.
The sun is rising as we make our final drive up the eastern coast to begin our unwelcome series of flights back home to the USA. We do make a quick stop along the way at the Moeraki Boulders. They appear so out of place (they are over 5 million years old!) yet they blend in with the naturally stunning formations along Koekohe Beach.
On a final note, next time we will be sure to plan enough time to make the final drive back into Christchurch that allows for the usual areas of construction and traffic that affect every city in the world. By speeding along, passing other vehicles when possible, and finally tossing Whitney out at the curb with the luggage to check us into our flights, we manage to make it on the plane with only minutes to spare.
Whitney and I used our 5 days in New Zealand to take in everything there was to offer. We will certainly return in the future with much more time to explore the parts we were only able to drive through as well as explore the areas we didn’t even attempt to squeeze in on this road trip.