New Zealand’s South Island – Plunge Into Planning A Road Trip!
Updated: May 7
New Zealand was one of our more unstructured trips, and we approached it more as a road trip into the unknown, embracing the nomadic spirit. While that was fun, those of you that know me personally understand it’s not really my style, as I am a planner through and through, even though I do have a gypsy heart. That is what inspired me to write this post. I feel like a little structure and knowledge ahead of time helps make the experience so much better.
First of all, don’t go over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, or within 10 days of either. We didn’t realize it when we booked, but a lot of the restaurants, businesses, and even sites were closed. We landed New Years Day and stayed for 10 days afterwards only to find that in many of our stops, the only options for dinner were groceries from local food marts that closed early due to holiday hours.
Regardless, we made the best of our time, and New Zealand dazzled us with its spectacular scenery... We drove by mountains and more mountains covered in bright splashes of local wildflowers. There is a reason that people that have been to New Zealand refer to it as God’s Country. It’s stunning! Taking the time to enjoy the views is a must, and I would highly recommend to plan to take advantage of the trains offered from Dunedin or plan to make stops along your road trip, so you can really soak in the vistas.
One stop on your list should be Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki where the lupin flowers are in full bloom in summer. The fields and roadways are blanketed in every shade of pink and purple you could imagine. Against the ice blue glacier lakes and distant purplish snow capped mountains, it’s hard to imagine a more postcard perfect Alpine landscape. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the rarer shade of buttery yellow too.
A trip to New Zealand's south isle should include time for hikes. For the enthusiast, it’s hard to imagine a better destination. If you are a beginner or maybe not in the best shape, beware that when a New Zealander tells you it’s an easy path, they mean a 75% slope. We had to huff and puff our way up several "easy" trails. However, we were always rewarded with breathtaking views for our efforts.
Take advantage of being able to taste real glacier water! It’s better than any bottle of Evian you’ve ever had. We dipped our bottles straight into a glacier stream on our way to Milford Sound. It was the cleanest, sweetest, and most refreshing water I’ve ever had.
Don't miss Milford Sound, even if it is a bit out of the way to get to. As you cruise through the peaceful waterways, you'll be delighted to see the giant elephant rock formation. You will feel a sense of wonder and relaxation also, as you gaze upon the entrance to the wild Tasmanian Sea, and soak in the loveliness of multiple waterfalls crashing down the verdant, ragged cliffs that surround three sides of the Sound.
Something else we were pleasantly surprised to find is that, New Zealand is the home of some of the friendliest people in the world… We’ve traveled to many destinations, and I can truly say that the people can often make or break the experience. Of all the friendly places I visited, I never thought I’d encounter nicer, more laid back people than I have in Hawaii… That is until I went to New Zealand. Strike up a conversation with a local, and you will quickly find yourself in a jovial mood. They are more than willing to help out with suggestions, and making new friends as you travel is one of the most rewarding things about globe trotting.
Dunedin should definitely be a stop on your road trip also. This is home to New Zealand’s only real castle and also has several charming town squares where you can relax with a drink and people watch. Lanarch Castle is not to be missed. It’s not only a castle, but a beautiful museum that you can tour. It also has a fascinating soap opera of a story at its centerpiece. The family history here is steeped in murder, affairs, and mystery!
You'll also want to participate in the adrenaline sports New Zealand is known for. It is the home of the original bungee jump or swings as they call them there. Word of warning, you will want to book these activities ahead of your trip, as they are incredibly popular and sell out weeks in advance for the most coveted jumps. We found this out the hard way! If you have a specific swing you want to do, it is worth it to book in advance, so you don’t get disappointed. While everything else was booked up for two weeks, we were lucky that they still had availability for The Ledge, which is the jump at the top of the mountain overlooking Queenstown.
Another word to the warning, don’t speed! They are actually more strict about it than here in the states. Besides, you're driving in a beautiful country, so just relax and enjoy the ride. Trust me, you do not want to pay the fines, which start at 300 NZ$! However, if you do get pulled over (and we did), it will be the nicest ticketing experience you’ve ever had. Our officer welcomed us to New Zealand, explained the speeding laws, gave us tips about the destination we were traveling to and then warned us that the place we were going was, and I quote, “crawling with his colleagues.” All of us in the car thanked him by the time it was over and were a bit awe struck by how nice the officer had been.
If you’re an oenophile, book a tour of Otago Valley. This was of course one of my favorite days of the whole trip. Otago is one of the 3 best Pinot Noir growing regions in the world, so if you like this varietal, you will want to sip and sample your way through the Valley. I fell head over heels in love with a local winery called Wooing Tree there, which produces my favorite rosé EVER, Blondie. I only wish they could export it to the US, as I drank my last bottle some time ago. If you go, please bring me some bottles back!
Here is another great tip for you, the translation for “sweet as.” This is a key phrase for everything that is cool or interesting, or otherwise can be used in the same way as Australians use, “No worries,” which also means it’s "all good" or "your welcome." It is very useful for its multiple meanings, and as you adopt it into your vernacular, you are on your way to sounding more local.
As you plan, you will want to book one more night in Queenstown than you think you need. Trust me, you’ll be happy you did. This beautiful alpine town is the jewel of the South Island in my humble opinion. Not only is it nestled in incredible surroundings, it's bustling with nightlife, great shopping, and an impressive variety of great eateries. There is a whole spectrum of watersports or skiing offerings also, depending on the time of the year you visit. Make it a point to head up the mountain for a really fun luge ride (see track below left) and picture perfect views of the town and lake.
Also, pack layers! The only thing consistent about the weather in New Zealand, is that it is consistently inconsistent. I could be sweating in the sun one minute and the next, with a few clouds moving in, it felt like it dropped 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, in the next minute, the sky could open up and pour down rain. Being from Texas, I am used to some quirky weather, but never have I seen things change so quickly as I did there. We were traveling in the summer, and even though the days could be really warm and perfect for tee shirts and even shorts, it gets cool in the evenings, so I often layered up with gloves and sweaters.
The ultimate road trip should include a HeliHike on top of Franz Josef too. Sadly, this famous glacier is disappearing at a rapid rate. We were told by the locals that two-thirds of this national treasure has disappeared over the last 7 years. Whether it’s global warming or part of the cyclical weather pattern changes over millennia on our planet, the fact is it’s not going to be there forever, so don’t miss your chance! However, plan for 2-3 days to stay near the glacier, because the inclement weather on this part of the island often interferes with the helicopters ability to fly. At any given point of the year, you have a 50/50 chance to go up, hence the need for a bit of flexibility around your stay.
New Zealand's South Island is stunning! It really has something for everyone, and for the adventure/adrenaline traveler this should be at the top of your list! Let me help you plan your very own experience! If interested, please send an inquiry to Jaime@DreamscapeTraveler.com