Time to explore the South island! From Wellington on, I couldn’t stop staring through the window of the plane, especially the contrast between mount Tapuae-O-Ueneku and the blue turquoise sea around Kaikoura.
I had booked a hostel that was not really in the centre but with a very special story: it’s an old prison! The staff of the Jailhouse accomodation was super welcoming, with nice play on words.
What to do in Christchurch?
- Punting on the Avon river : we walked 20mins from the hostel through South Hagley Park to reach the Avon river. I was sick so I skipped the ‘cruise’ but to be honest it looked pretty romantic
- Botanical gardens: the Avon surrounds the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. The Gardens are very large with a wide variety of native and exotic species, from roses to ferns and from rhododendrons to lilies. A very pleasant walk wandering between the ponds and the giant trees.
- Christchurch cathedral: the consequences of the 2011 earthquake (that killed185 people) are unfortunately still visible: the spire and the upper portion of the tower have been totally destroyed.
- Canterbury Museum: the museum was unfortunately closing when we arrived but the building is nevertheless stunningly beautiful
- Christchurch Gondola: we rented a car from Christchurch airport to explore the South Island. We drove 20mins to reach the Mount Cavendish, but you can also take bus 28 from the centre for about 40 minutes. The ticket is quite expensive (28$ return) but the views from up there are just incredible. You can of course also climb up (or maybe better: go down!) via the Bridal path and the Crater Rim walkway.
More about Christchurch and nice places to eat and drink here.
Next on our itinerary: drive 200kms (2h30) north to Kaikōura.
What to do in Kaikōura?
- Whale watching: Kaikoura is one the best places in New Zealand to spot whales, but nature is wild and sometimes you need to be patient… I had booked a boat with Whale Watch Kaikoura in the early afternoon but when we arrived, we were told that all cruises were being suspended due to strong winds. We arrived early the next morning: the sea was not as rough, cruises were operating but we were on the standby list in case someone wouldn’t show up for their tour. After more than 2 hours in the waiting room seeing happy tourists boarding to see whales, one spot eventually freed up, and my boyfriend told me to go and enjoy the whales as it was not sure we would ever get 2 seats. I was happy and sad at the same time. But what a show whales but up for me! I got to see 4 of them. The guide was providing great explanations, and helped us get the best pictures. I really recommend them!
- Kaikōura peninsula walkway and seal colony: this was our plan B when we couldn’t go on the cruise on the first day… and what a plan B! The peninsula walkway is a super nice stroll: we started along the beach to spot the lazy seals snoozing on their rocks, and observing the noisy albatrosses, and came back walking on the cliffs.
We then drove through the country towards Punakaiki on the West Coast. If you have more time, I would advise you to stop for one night somewhere on the way as the drive was particularly long, especially the inland road from Kaikōura to Culverden.
What to do in Punakaiki?
- Pancake Rocks: these weird rock formations are really impressive, and the big blowholes where the water springs out gives you an idea of the power of the sea
- Punakaiki River track: really nice walk along the Poporari river that will make you think you are in Jurassic Park. It takes one hour to the swingbridge. Further wals inland can also be done.
On the road again ….
Short stop in Hokitika gorge, 35km south from Hokitika (quite a long boring drive to be quite transparent), and its milky grey water (and a swingbridge!).
And a second stop near Okarito to walk among the wetlands (Wetland & Okarito Trig walks): a completely new type of landscape!
We spent the night in Franz Josef Glacier at the Franz Josef Montrose. Nice place, large kitchen and shared space, clean shared bathroom for those in a double room.
What to do in Franz Josef Glacier?
- Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere walk: this is the main walk to get close to the Franz Josef glacier itself. Not really difficult with the weather we had but the river can quickly flood so beware! Walking for 45minutes to reach the glacier, you will notice several signs showing where the glacier extended several decades ago and the effect of climate change. To be honest, we were a bit disappointed when we reached the closest point to the glacier: it’s still quite far away… But there’s actually a good reason: several tourists have died ignoring the signs and going in dangerous unstable areas
- Helicopter flight: on the way to the glaciers, I kept seeing ads for helicopter flights … and they started to work on me! But the prices were very high. And then I remembered bookme.co.nz that I had used in Australia. We paid 220$/person (instead of 280) for a 20-minute flight with The Helicopter Line that became… 40minutes once we got there including a stop on the Fox glacier and the view on Mt Cook (3 724m),and Mt Tasman (3 497m) because they wanted to fill up their flight. So happy! This first heliride was astonishing! I thought I would be scared but not at all, it’s actually much less shaky than I initially thought.
We left this beautiful place with stars in the eyes (and both my ears blocked… still sick) to drive even more South towards the Queenstown region.
Quick stop in Ship Creek near Haast to explore the beautiful sand dunes.
And another one to be mesmerised by the Blue Pools, outside Makarora. Oh and surprise: there’s a swingbridge!
To eventually reach Queenstown… on Christmas eve. I know Queenswtown is the capital of all sorts of adrenaline activities but for us, it was more of a nice stop between the West Coast and the Fjordland region, and a place where we would find some life the night before my … birthday!
We started the night at the Pub on Wharf, went on dancing holding tea cups at The World bar and around 2am called a Uber to get back to the Pinewood lodge (comfy, with large kitchens ando common areas)
What to do in Te Anau?
- Milford Sound – kayaking & cruise: the main reason to go and sleep in Te Anau is because it’s the closest town to Milford Sound. There’s one hotel there but obvsiously fully booked months in advance. Nevermind, Te Anau is a pretty little town that was ideal to relax after many days rushing and driving around. Well… there was a bit more driving involved. 2hours driving to arrive at 7.45am at our meeting point with our GoOrange kayaking instructors. For my first experience on open water, I got a bit of rough sea. Just enough to make bit slightly scared but not enough to actually capsize (which apparently happens once or twice per year). After more than 2hours paddling (and a last fight with the exasperating flies in the marina), they drove us to the boat for another 2-hour cruise to explore the fjord further, say hello to seals and get wet under the big falls.
- Glowworm Caves: understandingly no picture from this one but you should definitely see some glow worms once in your life time. They are super interesting – they can eat each other for competition reasons and they actually glow like crazy, it’s not only a name! The trip from Te Anau is organised by RealExperiences and takes a bit more than 2hours with nice info on the fjord provided by the guide. Not cheap: 103$.
- Fiordland escapes: our plans changed during the trip to make the most of our days and avoid being on the water with rain pouring down on us. We therefore ended up with some free time and we booked an escape game (35$/person) Funny to see this concept in such a small city! Well actually for kiwi standards, it must be quite a large one…
Some nice places to eat and drink too: a pizza at The Olive Tree Cafe, a very nice meal (but be ready to queue) at the Fat Duck, a drink while listening to live music at the Redcliffe Cafe or at the Ranch bar.
Time to drive back up to Christchurch, but in 2 days!
First stop in Cromwell, a lovely historical precinct in the middle of the fruit region, a super warm valley. Quite a change coming from Fiordland!
Second stop in Bendigo, where we walked around the remnants of an old settlement of gold mine workers. Be ready for a though ride, it’s not a road but a path with many small stones, but our little rental car survived, yay!
We spent the night literally in the middle of nowhere: the Dunstan Downs High Country Sheep Station just along the main road from Queenstown to Christchurch. There are little cabins, rooms in the main house and spaces for tents or campers. There’s absolutely no choice of accomodation in the area, I found this one on Hostelworld, nothing on Booking. And I was actually very happy, we met a lovely Swiss couple whilst cooking in the shared kitchen.
Last day of the trip! But what a day!
We first drove for more than one hour (mostly along stunning Lake Pukaki) to Aoraki/Mount Cook village to do the 10-km return Hooker Valley track and its 3 swingbridges. 9 days after seeing Mount Cook from a helicopter, we spent about 2hours walking (we have a fast pace, theoretically it takes 3) on the other side of Mount Cook in the beautiful valley. The end of the track is at the bottom of the Mueller Glacier. We could still still some bits of ice on the Hooker Lake, really impressive (and really cold there!).
Last stop in New-Zealand: the bluest of all the turquoise lakes of the country – Lake Tekapo! Go up to the Observatory (a few dollars to go up) to have an awesome (and windy) view.
Last night in New-Zealand at the JUCY Snooze Christchurch at a 8-minute walk from the airport. I strongly recommend it: the dorms are made of individual pods, the kitchen and common area is gigantic, colourful and filled with music. We dropped off our rental car in the evening, slept there as we had an early flight back to Sydney.
Bye bye Aotearoa… Still many places I would have liked to visit: Nelson, the Abdel Tasman Park, Dunedin, the Banks Peninsulta. One day….