Published 1/20/2019. Updated 1/19/2021.
The first two weeks of 2019 found my husband Mike and I making a long held dream come true: traveling New Zealand via road trip – the South Island. The how and why of our ending up there went a little something like this.
2018 marked a milestone birthday for me (the big 4-0!). To celebrate, I wanted to go on a memorable vacation. Mike and I both love to travel, and we use special occasions as a reason to go on bigger trips than we usually would (like our fifth anniversary trip to Australia in 2015).
Swinging for the fences – traveling to New Zealand!
We’d been saving up air miles from our Delta AmEx card for four years, and finally had enough to buy one round trip ticket anywhere in the world. We’d also been nursing our travel budget back to health after our last big trip a few years ago. I was initially planning to do a week in South Florida in the spring of 2018 (closer to my actual birthday) because we could have paid for both our plane tickets with air miles. But New Zealand has been pretty high on our travel bucket list for quite some time. So I figured early in the year that if we waited until closer to the end of the year, we’d have a chance to save enough to make it happen. By the grace of God, we did.
Four days after Christmas, we went wheels up. In doing some looking at various flight itineraries, and knowing that we wanted to wait until after Christmas to go, I planned our route so that we would have a stopover in Sydney, Australia for New Year’s Eve. Sydney does a massive, world-renowned fireworks display to ring in the New Year, and I figured since we were going to be in that part of the world then anyway, it would be our only chance to catch it live.
A once in a lifetime opportunity
It was mayhem, but it was totally worth it. NYE is big business in Sydney. They shoot off fireworks from the Sydney Harbor Bridge, as well as several places on the water throughout the harbor. Prime viewing locations are along the water, and they have figured out how to block access to the public from those locations, so they can charge a steep admission price for viewing. We talked to a couple that paid $400 per person! Since the fireworks were only a bonus on our trip, and not an essential piece, we opted not to pay for a prime spot. We decided to take our chances of finding a free location.
The fireworks start at midnight, so after taking a post 14-hour flight nap (an essential), we headed out around 9 p.m. to make our way downtown. We ended up on a street with a view overlooking the Harbor Bridge, with obstruction of another freeway overpass. The crowds were starting to get thick in the area, and we figured this was about the best we’d find for free.
In the video below, the crowd gets amped for the fireworks … then a short clip of them.
It was exhilarating to be able to witness the iconic event, even with the obstruction. Adding to the thrill was the happy, hyper crowd of thousands of strangers with whom we rang in 2019. (You can get a better view of the fireworks by googling it for a YouTube video.)
The next day, we had until mid-afternoon to wander about town, gawk at the Opera House and grab some lunch before we got on our flight to … Christchurch, New Zealand!!!!!
Our flight got in at midnight, so the following morning we picked up our rental car and embarked on the first day of our 12-day road trip covering the South Island. I had spent dozens of hours researching the sights to see and had put together an itinerary of how far we’d drive and where we’d stay each night of the trip.
Let two weeks of New Zealand magic commence!
Our first destination was Hanmer Springs, a lovely hot springs tourist town surrounded by rugged, tree-lined mountains. Spoiler alert: almost everything we saw was made more beautiful by rugged, tree-lined mountains, so that phrase and ones like it will come up a lot.
We paid the admission price for the hot springs resort and spent an evening soaking in various tubs of hot mineral water, with a great view. Quite relaxing. The largest pool also had a “lazy river,” which was more like a “raging river” and we had a riot being carried along by the current alongside strangers who were also having a fun time.
The next morning we made a side trip out to Kaikoura, where we had been told we could see whales and possibly penguins. No dice, so we continued on our way to Nelson, where we were highly anticipating not only a charming bed & breakfast but the warmest beaches on the island. Neither disappointed.
The sunny beaches of Nelson, New Zealand
The pale greenish-blue water of the sea was slightly chilly but highly swimmable. The B&B was a beautifully restored old farmhouse on an eclectic farm tucked away in the mountains, but 15 minutes from downtown Nelson and the beach. The host was an entertaining fellow who was eager to chat with us about New Zealand and give us his unique spin on a myriad of topics. His partner was a former restauranteur, who made us a delicious breakfast the following morning.
A little bit more time on the beach the following day, and it was time to head to our next destination of Westport, to begin the West Coast portion of our trip.
Westport turned out to be a mediocre beach town, with a beachfront that was nothing to write home about, especially compared to the beach we came from, and the beautiful beaches on the West Coast of the United States. We did find a cute B&B to stay, with a super nice older couple.
The Great Coast Road
Lonely Planet ranks the 63-mile drive (“the great coast road”) from Westport to Greymouth as one of the top 10 coast drives in the world, so we were excited to be driving it the following day. Lush, green hills with rainforest-like vegetation greeted us on one side, the light blue ocean water on the other.
Besides pulling off at viewpoints for pictures and video, we stopped at Punakaiki’s “Pancake Rocks,” a series of curious rock formations along the coast that looks like giant stacks of pancakes. There are also some impressive blowhole crevices among the rocks that showcase the fascinating landscape amidst frothy churning ocean water below.
When Google Maps does you right
Another stop that day involved driving about 30 minutes off the beaten path. Hokitika Gorge is a scenic, narrow river gorge where regular water mixes with glacier mineral sediment to form a captivating bright blue for a short section of the river:
I had seen it on my research and was eager to make the trip to see it in person. Well worth it.
A native pest to keep things interesting
It was also around this time in the trip that we were introduced to an obnoxious insect: the sandfly. Before I knew its name, I called it the bitey fly. I bet you can guess why. Many of my pictures were made blurry because of jerking the camera as every inch of exposed flesh became a sandfly landing strip when standing still. Their bites itched like crazy during the duration of our trip. It was like camping by a Pacific Northwest lake in July. But I digress. On with the progression…
A turn inland lead us through the tip of the unbelievably beautiful Mt. Aspiring National Park. Once again, we drank in beautiful steep tree-lined vistas with more waterfalls than we could count, along a raging river. I could have caught many bugs in my mouth because it was agape as I looked about in disbelief at the scenery.
That night we stayed at a lovely Airbnb room in the gorgeous hills 20 minutes outside of the beautiful lakeside town of Wanaka. (More on Wanaka later in the trip.) Our hosts were a delightful couple who had recently moved to this gorgeous home from the bigger city of Christchurch for a change of pace. They had converted two bedrooms to Airbnb rentals, and we were pleased to have found this quiet, scenic locale to relax after some long days of driving and sightseeing.
We were pleased (for once) to wake up in the middle of the night, for we found that the clouds had burned off, revealing the majestic Southern Hemisphere night sky, which features an entirely different view and set of constellations than we see in the Western United States. We silently star gazed and admired the beauty and vastness of God’s creation.
Fiordland National Park: Milford Sound
Next up, the long, beautiful drive to take a peek at Milford Sound, the gorgeous, famous fiord that often serves as the pictorial icon for New Zealand. Also, it was recently featured in the opening scene of Mission Impossible: Fallout, which we had just watched before leaving on our trip.
We shot pictures and video like the tourists we are, then made our way to our lodging in Te Anau on the eve of the highlight of our trip: an overnight cruise through Doubtful Sound, another sound in the massive, remote Fiordland National Park.
A fjord (or fiord as spelled by Kiwis), is defined as “a long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs, as in Norway and Iceland, typically formed by submergence of a glaciated valley.” If you are not familiar with this, do a google image search to get an idea.
The most stunning part of our New Zealand travels: Doubtful Sound (it’s doubtful there is anything more beautiful)
No words can describe the majestic, unspeakable beauty we beheld over an afternoon, evening and morning. Even pictures don’t capture the sheer scale and beauty of this natural wonder. Three-thousand foot cliffs with waterfalls galore towered on either side of us as our ship cut through the serene waters of the sound until we reached the churning Tasman Sea. The whole experience was like a prolonged worship service, praising the power and creative brilliance of our Creator God who made such a stunning display for us to enjoy. Not to mention, we were fed like kings and queens on this short cruise!
Doubtful Sound was rightfully the visual climax of our trip. We knew that it would be difficult to surpass its beauty. However, we still had five days to go and were pleasantly surprised at the fantastic stuff that we were yet to see.
Queenstown: rejoining civilization
Our next stop was Queenstown, a bustling adventure city at the base of picturesque mountains, on the shores of the blue-green Lake Wakatipu. I’d really been anticipating this place, one that I had dubbed “the Bend (Oregon) of New Zealand” based on my research.
It was indeed a happening town: a hip crowded downtown area on the waterfront, and very difficult to find a place to park. Our anticipation about the city was dampened when we discovered that the hostel where I had booked us two nights to stay turned out to be much more ghetto than the strategic, misleading pictures on the website had led me to believe. Let’s just say the mattress was several years overdue for replacing, and there were some pretty stunning safety concerns arising from deferred maintenance on the place. 😉
We got a good laugh out of it, but we were more motivated to find outside things to do until late at night, to minimize the time spent in our dingy room.
The hostel was a good value (we saw why a bit too late), and it had a great location just a few minutes from the action of the lakefront downtown. It was also right at the base of a tall hill with a gondola going to the top, with a panoramic view of the area. Upon discovering that there was also a hiking trail to the top, we opted the next morning to get some exercise in rather than pay for the gondola ride. Well worth it, not only because we love to hike, but the calorie consumption-to-exercise ratio tends to get skewed quite a bit on vacation.
That afternoon, we drove up the other side of the lake to Glenorchy, where we were promptly proved wrong about thinking we had seen all the spectacular scenery already. The lake turned a dazzling turquoise and was framed by snow-capped peaks along the drive. The town itself was in the center of all that beauty, and we stared in amazement, cameras flashing like crazy.
Lake Wanaka: a pleasant surprise!
The next stop was one I was also excited about (like everything on the trip. Ha.): Wanaka, positioned on the edge of a beautiful lake of the same name. Since we’d seen it earlier in the trip, we anticipated our return. Mike had found us an Airbnb private cabin up in the hills overlooking the lake and the mountains. Just our speed, and a welcome change of pace from the broken-spring-mattress dump we had just left.
Since every previous day was filled with driving and sightseeing galore, staying parked by a beautiful lake for two days seemed like heaven. That is one of my favorite things to do on vacation back home, so it was the best of both worlds; having a summertime lakeside vacay on the other side of the world.
We swam (the water was very cold but easy enough to adapt to for a lake-aholic such as me), laid out on the beach, rented a kayak and paddleboard, AND discovered that the brewpub across the street from the lake was just our speed as well. To top it off, we learned that a famous tree sticking out of the lake that is well promoted on social media via hashtag marketing (#ThatWanakaTree) was within the range we could paddle to, so we did the obligatory tourist thing and took pictures.
Our two days at the lake were the last big items on the agenda, and we were left with two days to make it back to Christchurch, from where our homebound flight departed.
Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki
Even still, there was more amazing things to see: Mount Cook, and a couple more beautiful blue glacier-fed lakes. Our drive towards the majestic jagged snowy peaks of Cook and surrounding mountains was enhanced by the beautiful Lake Pukaki in the foreground.
Driving to Mount Cook Village at the end of the road, we wished we had a few more days to do some hiking in the area. But after our requisite amount of gawking, we headed out to the inevitable end of our fabulous trip.
On our way back to Christchurch, we stopped at Timaru along the coast, the recent home of a colony of little blue penguins we were hoping to see. Turns out, they only come out after sunset, and we had to be in Christchurch that night for a super early morning flight, so we weren’t able to see them.
If you’ve read to this point, congrats and thank you-you are a champ and perseverer. This trip was a dream come true for us, and we marveled the entire time at the beauty we beheld. Our running joke was that we should have had helmets on the whole time, to contain the mess from our heads exploding daily at the sheer delight of the scenery.
If you want to chat further or have any questions or comments, I am all ears. I suspect I will be eager to talk about New Zealand for years to come.
Here is a map outlining some more detail about our route. Thanks again for reading!