Occasionally people email me and ask “what should I do in New Zealand when I visit”. That’s a kind of “how long is a piece of string” type question. After answering a couple of people directly I realised that it took way too long and that I was generally saying the same things over and over. It seemed more logical to put those recommendations here, so that I can direct people to this page.
There is more information on New Zealand on my “About New Zealand” page. If you want to read a beautifully written, easy to read book on New Zealand’s history, then have a read of Michael Kings “Penguin History of New Zealand”.
Disclaimer. Generally I have done the activities I recommend and think they are worth doing. Your enjoyment and safety will depend on some of the following: outdoor experience, ability to walk up hill carrying a pack, head for heights, swimming ability and comfort in water, general fitness, guts, determinatin and tenacity. Some activities are potentially dangerous, such as: rafting, river surfing, parapenting, hanggliding. Only you can decide if you are up for a particular activity. You will also find useful information on the Tourism NZ and the Automobile Association websites. Any recommendations I make here are because I think they are good, not because I make any money from the companies I have recommended. I worked for Adventure South as a guide, and I know they are good, hence my recommendation for them. They don’t pay me a commission for this. If you find this information useful, and it saves you time and money planning your trip feel free to make a donation by using the paypal payment widget to the right
Setting the Scene: If you are only coming for two weeks, then choose either the North or South Island only. If you don’t want to drive, are travellng alone and want some company then join one of Adventure South’s Adventure Odyssey tours, which cover both islands and offer a fantastic overview of the country for those on a tight time budget. To try and do both by yourself will have you in a car, driving for most of your trip, with little time to actually interact with the environment. As a born and bred south islander I have to admit to being a little South Island biased, as its scenically more dramatic, with the snow and ice topped southern alps forming the backdrop to most of the views. By comparison the North Island has more picturesque beaches (and generally much warmer water), Tongariro National Park with its active volcanos, Rotorua, White Island and the Bay of Islands, all beautiful, but in a more mellow, flat sort of way. The south has Mt Cook, Fox and Franz Joseph Glacier, Fiordland and its Milford sound, Queenstown and Wanaka, excellent hiking (known as tramping here) great sea kayaking in Milford sound and Abel Tasman national park and so the list goes on. Best is to decide how long you can stay, (get on your knees and beg the boss for an extra week if you have to, it’s worth it).
Organising your Tour: Do your research. Whet your appetite by getting hold of a guide book with lots pictures, surf the net, look at the pictures on this site. From this sort out the places you want to go and things you want to do. Enter them all into a spreadsheet and start working out your route. You can get an idea of distances by using google earth to measure them. Also the New Zealand AA site has a page which tells you driving times and distances. Note: Whilst NZ is small, its roads are quite slow compared to the multi laned highways of North America and Europe. Our speed limit is 100kmh but for a lot of roads this is too fast. And anyway, you are on holiday, so what’s the hurry? Allow yourself plenty of time to stop and go ooooh rrrrrrrrr at all the beautiful sites. References to booking early applies to the busy months of late December through to end of March. Read these notes with a map in hand, which will help you get a perspective on the layout of the land, place names and distances.
Basically the most efficient way to travel the south island is by doing a loop from Christhcurch. (You are most likely to land here or Auckland) Bascally you have two coastal roads, SH 1 down the east coast and SH 6 along the west coast. SH 8 runs down the centre to the east of the Southern Alps. Three passes cross the southern alps, namely: Lewis, Arthurs and Haast Passes, effectively joining the east and west coasts. Try to avoid zig zagging between the coasts if you are time constrained. Its better to drive up one, and down the other. Whether you start by going north first or south will depend on the bookings you need to work around for the activities you really want to do. For example, if you want to walk the Milford track, the freedom walkers part is generally completely booked up by October for the coming season. Real Journeys Milford and Doutbful Sound overnight cruises are very popular and also fill up fast. Swimming with the Dolphins or Whale Watching at Kaikoura are also very popular with limited numbers on each sailing. i.e, BOOK EARLY! The rough itinerary below starts in Christchurch, heads north to Kaikoura and then circles anti clockwise via Nelson and the Abel Tasman National Park, then down the westcoast to Fiordland and back to Christchurch via Mt Cook and Tekapo. Motel / Hotel recommendations are places I have stayed. They are middle of the road, costing somewhere between $100 – $200 per night per room. Generally there are lots of options in most places, but bottle necks like Fox, Franz, and Marahau have limited beds. If you want to stay in those places it pays to book early.
Finally, the Itinerary with activity suggestions
Start from Christchurch and head up to Kaikoura (view photos ), roughly two hours drive away. Stay here: Anchor Inn. Kaikoura is famous for its Whale Watching and Dolphin swimming. No question in my mind, the dolphin swimming blows the wake off the whale watching. If you are an okay swimmer and are cool in deep water, then go for the dolphin swim. You have to book this early. Not many are allowed in the water. We saw 100 – 200 dolphins when we went out!!!! That’s a serious WOW factor!!!!!!! Very weather dependant. Early morning generally best. You can also go horse treking.
From Kaikoura continue up the coast to Bleheim. Popular wine tasting area. Ask at the local i-site, situated in the old railway station for maps and advice. About 2.5 hours from Kaikoura. Head across to Nelson from here. About 1.5 hours. Nice motel to stay in are the DeLorenzo’s Studios on Trafelgar Street
Abel Tasman: Stay in Marahau at Abel Tasman Marahau Lodge If you want a bed, book early. Good place to be based for exploring the park. You can also stay in kaiteriteri, or Motueka. If you are only in town for a day, you can kayak into the park and walk back. There are lots of sea kayaking companies that operate in the park. Wilsons is one of the bigger ones and also runs water taxis. Take your pick. The track is a well maintained bench track, with very few steep climbs. If you don’t want to kayak, take a water taxi into the park and walk back from Torrent or Anchorage Bays. Better than walking in and then having to wait for a taxi to come back, although they run pretty frequently so you shouldn’t have to wait long. Free maps of the park are available from the water taxi companies. If you want to dine out at night, pays to book, as there are only two restaurants. Park Cafe (03-527 8270) and Hooked on Marahau.
From Abel Tasman take the inland road from Motueka down the Motueka Valley Highway (61) to Kohatu Junction on State highway 6. Turn right and head through Murchison (In Murchison you can stay at the Murchison Lodge) and onto Punakaiki. Stay at the Rocks Hotel in Punakaiki or if this is a bit expensive then search the web for some cheaper motels. The local Punakaiki tavern has some small, comfy motels behind it, also there is a Department of Conservation (here after known as DOC) camping ground.
Eating out: The Rocks has an up market restaurant, which is very busy in season, or you can go to the Tavern for a good, cheap meal. If you have your own car, and don’t mind an hours drive to get your meal, then go north to the Bay House Cafe Simply wonderful.
Things to do: Visit the Blow-holes and pancake rocks at dolomite point (.30 min walk), walk along the Pororari lagoon beach, walk up the Pororari river, do the loop track and come back down the Punakaiki river (mandatory wet feet walk). Hire a canoe and go for a paddle up the Pororari. Go caving with Underworld Adventures up the Nile River from Chaleston (1 hours drive north)
Drive from Punakaiki down to Fox. (see note below on Okarito Lagoon. The turnoff is a few ks before Franz Joseph) The Rainforest Motels are pretty reasonable, good accommodation, five minutes from the town, restaurants and Alpine Guides with whom you will want to go for a half day guided walk on the glacier. Don’t try and do this on your own. You need crampons. Pay the money and be safe. Go for a walk around Lake Matheson in the evening to watch the sunset, or drive down to Gillespies beach for beautiful views of the Southern Alps. If you are inclined and the weather is good when you arrive, then book a scenic flight in a Helicopter over the Alps. Its normal for the mountains to be shrouded by cloud from around 11am to 5pm. Often this will burn off as the day cools: early evening is the best time to take a flight, so reserve a seat even if you don’t think the weather is going to clear, you might well be surpised.
If you have time, spend a night at Okarito Lagoon. Although having said that, it’s pretty hard to get accommodation there. Nature tours manage a small rental cottage. There is also Kotuku Lodge. If you want to stay there you need to book early. There are no shops, so you must take you own food, although you can get a decent cup of coffee from Okarito Nature tours. Well worth doing. The drawcard for tiny Okarito, 20 minutes north of Franz Joseph Glacier is its large freshwater lagoon. Okarito Nature Tours hire kayaks for half and full day self guided tours of the lagoon and forest shrouded waterways. Abundant birdlife and generally calm, tranquil waters make it a pleasure. Take your lunch, cruise in on the incoming tide, and return on the outgoing tide. White herons, Royal spoonbills, and a variety of wading birds call this home.
From Okarito go to Fox (see above for accomodation etc). From Fox continue down coast to Haast. Fabulous jetboat ride up the Waiototo river. Do it if you have time. If that doesn’t work, then I really recommend the Dart River safari which leaves from Queenstown and is a day trip. Great value for money when compared with the rah rah activities like Bungy jumping, fly by wire etc.
Drive over the Haast. Pause at Thunder Creek falls and the gates of Haast bridge. Head on over the pass and coast down to Makarora. Really really good thing to do here is to go on the Siberia experience. This incorporates a ride in a small plane, landing in an alpine valley, 3 hour walk out and a jet boat ride to finish. Really great, but a word of warning: you fly in a single engine Cessna, so if this scares the bejesus out of you then maybe you shouldn’t go as the plane sometimes gets tossed around a bit. I think its fun, others think they are going to die and throw up just so that everyone else suffers as well. But if it’s a fine day its an amazing flight. You wouldn’t do both this and the Waiototo jet boat ride unless you love jet boats as you wouldn’t have time to fit both in and get through to Wanaka or Queenstown (which is 1 hour further on.
On to Wanaka or Queenstown. Wanaka is prettier and warmer, but if you want night life then Queenstown is the place to go. You can of course spend a night in Wanaka then head over to Queenstown, as its only an hours drive over the Crown Range. If you are in Wanaka and want to go walking then go up Mt Roy. It’s pretty steep, but follows a well marked trail and the views over Lake Wanaka are truly stunning. (Its closed for most of October and November for lambing) Preferably get up early enough to watch the sunrise. Another beautiful walk is the Rob Roy glacier. About 6 hours from Wanaka, with a 2 hour return drive from Wanaka to Raspberry flat, the start of the walk. There is also mt biking and walking to be done. You can hire bikes from the i-site on the water front. Also if you are staying in Wanaka make time to watch a movie at the Cinema Paradiso, 1 Ardmore Street 03-443-1505. If you are lucky you might get to sit in the Morris minor. It’s great – relaxed atmosphere, just like cinema should be. and you are even allowed to drink beer and wine in the movie and the half time home made icecream is to die for
Do the overnight cruise on the Doubtful sound Navigator. Book with Real Journeys. Unless you have truck loads of dosh, book in the quads. Afterall, its only for one night. Take air plugs and the snorers won’t piss you off quite so much.
If you have time, drive through to Milford Sound. Honestly, it’s the drive as much as it is the sound. Along the way take a walk up to Key summit which starts at the Divide about 1.5 hours from Te Anau. Views are to die for. Walk into the Chasm, which is on the Milford side of the Hommer tunnel. Stay the night at the Milford Lodge if you have time. Well worth it, as then you can do a sea kayak trip in the morning with Fiordland Wilderness Experiences. If you do a cruise quite often you get the option to get off at the underwater observatory. It’s an additional cost on top of the crusie, but I think its well worth it. The sandflies will attempt to eat you alive so make sure you have repellent. Start taking vitamin B12 before you leave home. Eat marmite or vegemite. (No, don’t cover yourself in marmite like one client did. Eat it, the vitamins it contains may help) I’m being serious. It seems to help get rid of the bites. These babies make midges look like lightweights. In fact all down the westcoast make sure you have sandfly repellent. They are seriously annoying little pricks.
Once you have done the hanging out in in Fiordland then head back up to Queenstown (4 hours drive from Milford, 2 hours from Te Anau). You may wish to stay another few nights in Queenstown. Head out of Queenstown via the kawarau gorge, passing lots of vineyards. Worth a stop at the Big Picture a ungique wine tasting venue. Also has an excellent restaurant. Pass Cromwell, cross lake Dunstan and head north via Omarama, and onto Mt Cook. Stay at the Aoraki Alpine Lodge: Walk up the hooker valley to the lake. Go to Kea Point. Walk up to Mueller Hutt. Do the Glacier explorer trip. Well worth it. BOOOKKKKKKKK early. Have I mentioned that before? On the way out of Mt Cook, stop at Glenntanner if it’s a good day. A helicopter or scenic flight is a must if you haven’t already done one from Fox Glacier
Tekapo is okay. Go up Mt John for a coffee and the views. The hot pools in Tekapo very good if you need to relax. Lots of accommodation in Tekapo. You are now three hours from Christchurch. Just drive, nothing much else to see enroute, unless you want some good, reasonably priced woollen clothing. If so stop at the Tin Shed.
Carry on to Christchurch.
Christchurch Make sure you allow yourself enough time to explore Christchurch and its environs. There is Akaroa on Banks Peninsula,the Banks Peninsula Walkway Tuatara Tours offer a guided walk from Christchurch to Akaroa. Take the gondola from Heathcote and explore the Summit road and crater rim walkway. Catch a bus to Sumner down by the sea and walk around the cliffs to Taylors Mistake. Drive out to Godley Heads via the Lyttelton tunnel, Lyttelton, Evans Pass, Godley head, Sumner back to town. Other popular places to visit: Antarctic Centre, Willowbank Wildlife centre, and Orana Park.
If you are planning on eating Christmas dinner out somewhere you need to book. You will be charged an arm and a leg. Mostly NZ is closed at Christmas, so beware. (Perspective: There are less than 1 million people in the South Island which is roughly the size of England. roughly 700,000 of those people live in Nelson, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill. So don’t expect the amenities you would get in the UK or Europe, we just don’t have enough people. )
River activities in Queenstown: Rafting, boogy boarding. All great fun, but if you aren’t a really confident water person then think twice. Answer this: If the raft flips, how many people can the raft guide help at a time? Grade 4 rivers are fun to raft in, but believe me they are really, really, really shit to swim in without the raft. Go on them by all means, just be aware of the risks.
Accommodation: the accommodation I have listed is not the cheapest. The reason I have mentioned it is because I have stayed at them and they are pretty good. There are loads of other places around that are undoubtedly just as good. I just haven’t stayed at them. The Bella Vista chain of motels aren’t too bad if you get stuck. All pretty much the same, although the rooms are a little on the small side. They are modern, and usually equipped with microwave etc. They are also usually pretty well situated in any town, usually within walking distance of shops etc. (The Wanaka one is right down town, so worth considering.)