Think of every possible adjective that describes something breathtakingly beautiful, and insert it here. New Zealand’s South Island is a serious contender for one of the most stunning countries in the world. Snowy-capped mountains rub shoulders with rolling farmlands that boast all shades of green, while icy glaciers drop down into sparkling blue alpine lakes.
In hindsight, I am kicking myself for not travelling by car as I felt like I missed out on seeing so much of New Zealand’s beauty by depending on the public buses, which at times were quite restrictive. That said, I still got to witness a lot of the ever-changing landscapes from my bus seat and not once did I allow myself to fall asleep just so I could take it all in.
There’s no end to the things you can see and do in New Zealand and even though I spent five weeks exploring a good chunk of both the south and north islands, I still feel like I didn’t even scratch the surface. I could have quite easily spent another five and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have got bored.
If you are planning a trip to New Zealand, here’s a quick round-up of what I got up to during three weeks on the South Island…
I arrived in Christchurch around midnight, and after a night sleeping on a bean bag in the hostel common room (thanks to the kind security guard who took pity on me for making a mistake with my booking!) I got up at the crack of dawn to take an early morning stroll around the city until I could check in.
As soon as I stepped outside into the daylight, it was immediately apparent that the city was still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2011. Large parts of the city were still decimated, and most of the beautiful stone buildings that I had seen in past photos were gone. No-body seemed to be out-and-about and the dreary weather didn’t help with the sombre atmosphere. With many residents relocating after the earthquake, it felt like a complete ghost town.
However, while many backpackers now tend to miss this city out, I didn’t regret fitting it in on my itinerary. If you looked beyond the rubble, it’s clear to see that it is a city that is slowly beginning to re-invent itself. The city has become a blank canvas for many new and exciting creative projects that breathe new life into the city. Street murals and art installations are dotted around the town, and I really loved how they have innovatively created retail units using brightly coloured shipping containers.
Charming Dunedin is a vibrant university town, which is often referred to as the “Edinburgh of the South.” There are plenty of quirky local student bars to enjoy some Scottish whiskey and the town boasts a thriving indie music scene. It is also home to Baldwin Street – the world’s steepest street, which I chose to amble to the top of on probably the hottest day I experienced throughout my entire trip of New Zealand.
It’s a great place to while away a few hours just walking around the town, whether it’s a leisurely stroll through the botanic gardens, or marvelling at the architecture of the Railway Station (which claims to be NZ’s most photographed building). I can also fully recommend doing the street art trail where vibrant, whimsical artworks are hidden on walls around the town. My only regret here was not giving myself enough time to visit Tunnel Beach or the penguins on the Otago Peninsula.
There’s not much to write home about when it comes to this small industrial town. Maybe I didn’t explore enough, but unless you’re willing to fork out on an expensive flight over to Stewart Island, it’s not really worth stopping by. Sticking to my “stay-in-one-place-for-at-least-two-nights rule” turned out to be something of a regret here. Aside from the museum (where you can see tautaras – a lizard native to NZ and are the last survivors of reptiles that lived in the dinosaur age) there is not much else to see or do.
This fun-loving town is where most adrenaline junkies go to get their adventure fix. Bungee jumps, skydives, jet boats, skiing, canyon swings – you name it, Queenstown has it. Surrounded by the the soaring heights of The Remarkables and the coves of Lake Wakatipu (apparently the second-purest lake water in the world), I finally felt like I was seeing the beautiful New Zealand scenery that everyone raved about.
Queenstown is a very popular town for backpackers, so one word of warning – if you’re staying in hostels, book your accommodation far in advance during high season. Unaware of this, I left it to the last minute and it was a complete fluke that I managed to book the one remaining room in the entire town.
With my heart set on doing a skydive in Taupo, I mostly spent my time here enjoying a bit of hiking, chilling by the lake with a book, and sampling the lively nightlife Queenstown has to offer. It is also the home to the famous Fergburger, but there was no way I was willing to queue for two to three hours to get one (I get hangry at the best of times when it comes to waiting for food).
Once called the “eighth wonder of the world”, Milford Sound is a must for anyone visiting New Zealand. I took a day trip by coach from Queenstown (disclaimer – don’t do this after stumbling in at 3am. The early start and winding roads don’t help with the hangover).
However, hungover or not, the drive to Milford Sound was simply stunning. We stopped at various places to take in the surrounding beauty, but probably one of the most memorable was Mirror Lake. We were very lucky that the waters were so calm, and I managed to get some great shots of the reflections of the mountains on the lake.
On arriving at Milford Sound, we waiting patiently at the ferry dock to board our ship while returning passengers boasted about seeing dolphins on their cruise. Unfortunately we weren’t as lucky, but we did get our NZ wildlife fix when we spotted a family of fur seals sleeping on a rock.
The weather was pretty dismal, however this only added to the eery, mystical atmosphere as we cruised around the sheer rocky cliffs that rise high above still dark waters. Cascading waterfalls surround you at every turn, and the captain even steered up close to one of them so we all got a good soaking. It really is NZ’s scenery at its best, and with the perfect blend of wildlife, mountainous landscapes and fun, you won’t be disappointed by visiting this amazing natural wonder.
Next stop was New Zealand’s hidden gem, Wanaka. As soon as I set foot off the bus, the fresh mountainous air hit my face and I was instantly won over by the views of the blissful lakeside. Wanaka has a raw beauty that draws you in and I found myself not really wanting to leave.
There are many scenic trails along the mountains that surround the lake, including a popular day hike to the Rob Roy Glacier. And when you’re done exploring, you can spend an afternoon getting your mind completely blown at Puzzle World. If you get the chance, I also recommend popping down to the lakeside and treating yourself to a Kiwi-style English Breakfast at Cherry May. Delicious!
This small vacation town was mainly built to cater for tourists wanting to hike the Franz Josef glacier. A guided helihike is the only way to safely set foot on the glacier, but this was unfortunately out of the question for us due to poor weather conditions. Determined not to let this dampen our spirits, myself and some friends decided to settle for a hike to the face of the glacier instead.
Despite the dismal weather, the walk itself was still incredibly scenic – the sheer scale of the valleys and waterfalls made us look like tiny dots in almost all of our photos (as you can see below!). There are also a number of other rainforest hiking trails nearby that are worth exploring too, including one with a rather daunting swing bridge over the river.
We must have walked for over an hour before even catching a glimpse of the glacier through the clouds, and once we got nearer, I was surprised to see that it had retreated almost half way up the valley unlike the photos that were displayed on the route, taken only a few years beforehand. It was a sad reminder of how global warming is impacting our environment at quite an alarming rate. I just hope I can return to NZ one day to hike the glacier before its too late.
Cute by name and cute by nature. Most people tend to only make a quick pit-stop here to see the natural wonders of the famous Pancake Rocks (basically limestone rock formations that are layered like pancakes…personally I couldn’t see the resemblance but they still made for impressive viewing, especially when you catch the sea booming through the blowholes during high tide).
There’s really not a great deal to do in this incredibly small settlement (not even a supermarket!) but I’m a sucker for serenity and beautiful scenery and that’s something Punakaiki definitely delivers. If you have the time, there are some nice hiking trails and beach walks to find a moments peace.
The Abel Tasman
Golden beaches, crystal clear waters, caves and lush coastal forests, an abundance of marine wildlife – The Abel Tasman National Park is a nature lovers dream. Its stunning coastal tracks also make it one of New Zealand’s popular Great Walks – however I unfortunately didn’t have the time to squeeze this in my itinerary.
Instead I settled for a day trip that combined a cruise and four hour hike to Anchorage Beach. About one hour in, I found that my efforts to keep myself hydrated in the heat weren’t exactly doing wonders for my bladder. With another three hours of hiking ahead of me, I was faced with quite the dilemma. No toilets in sight. No shelter for me to subtly hide behind a bush without risk of falling off the cliff. Nooo idea if peeing openly in a protected National Park was an arrestable offence. I had no choice but to grin and bear it before getting to the beach campsite where the boat would pick us up. Luckily the beautiful coastal scenery was a good distraction!
Glad to round off this post with my favourite place on the South Island, Kaikoura – a quirky coastal town wedged between two huge mountain ranges. It is also one of the best places to experience marine wildlife in New Zealand, with opportunities to see albatrosses, go whale watching, kayak with seals, and swim with dusky dolphins.
Having always wanted to experience swimming with dolphins in their natural environment, I decided to jump at the chance and take a snorkelling trip with Dolphin Encounter. One of the reasons I made the decision to go with this company is because they commit to delivering a programme that focuses on environment sustainability, and the experience itself was incredible – I’ll be touching on it in more detail in a separate post soon 🙂
Have you ever explored New Zealand’s South Island? What were your highlights? Feel free to share in the comments below!
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