An Adventurous New Zealand Travel Guide: South Island

March 14, 2019
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New Zealand Travel Guide | Couple kissing in the lupin fields near Lake Tekapo while traveling to New Zealand in the spring

New Zealand is one of the most breathtaking countries I’ve ever visited! Absolutely EPIC. If you haven’t read my travel guide to the North Island of New Zealand, be sure to check out the top of that post to catch the tips I share for traveling through New Zealand.

The scale of the South Island can’t possibly be shown in photos, though we tried! I don’t think I’ve said ‘WOW’ more any other time in my life. . . I’m excited to share what to pack, what we did + what you shouldn’t miss!

Abel Tasman

We started our journey on the South Island in the Abel Tasman area, which is the farthest north west corner. We came off the ferry from the North Island of New Zealand and made our way west. We were only in Abel Tasman for one night, two days so I don’t have enough information to really give advice but it was a BEAUTIFUL region so definitely do some research and see if it’s somewhere you want to explore.

New Zealand Travel Guide | Woman walking on Wharaiki Beach near Abel Tasman in New Zealand
New Zealand Travel Guide | Capturing the night sky with astrophotography in the southern hemisphere when traveling.

Places to stay in Abel Tasman:

Awaroa Lodge


Te Hapu Coastal Cottages

Abel Tasman Lodge

Lake Tekapo

From Abel Tasman, we were planning to journey down the west coast of the South Island but because it was raining pretty much everywhere we were planning on going, we decided to just take the day to get the 10 hr. drive out of the way!

We left early in the morning the day after Christmas and decided to head straight towards Lake Tekapo, despite the 100% chance of rain that the weather forecast was predicting.

It was about a 10 hour drive (no, I wasn’t kidding when I said we toured almost this entire country!) and after a looong day in the car, we were so ecstatic to see a little patch of light on the horizon as we approached Tekapo!

By the time we reached our first field of lupins, there was a full on RAINBOW shooting out from the shades of purple and pink flowers. We were both screaming and had to pull over! It was magical and only lasted a few minutes. It was acknowledgement that we were in the right place at the right time. We kept driving towards Lake Tekapo and got the lay of the land. We took some portraits down by the water’s edge and sat in awe of the gorgeous colors lighting up the nearby mountain tops.

New Zealand Travel Guide | Lupins in bloom at Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Woman in field of lupins near Lake Tekapo during New Zealand spring season.

When we woke the next morning, the alarm jarring us awake at 5:30AM, it was chilly out and the car windows were steamed up from our breath. We left our campsite to see the lupins in the morning light.

Lupins bloom at Lake Tekapo, during New Zealand’s spring season, starting around mid-November and only lasting for about a month. They are enchanting and so fragrant. Although I was definitely allergic to them and broke out in hives a few times – ha! I’m so glad we decided to come at this time of year. The beauty of this place infuses you with joy.

We stayed in Tekapo a few nights, exploring nearby and also around Mt. Cook area (about an hour away). This was one of the highlights of our trip! I believe traveling changes you, grows you… opens your eyes to things you never knew existed before.

*Note: In NZ, lupins are viewed as a weed but they are a draw for many that visit here and are absolutely beautiful! Be mindful when walking through them or photographing them not to destroy the flowers.

New Zealand Travel Guide | New Zealand lupins in colorful bloom near Lake Tekapo during spring travel vacation. Multiple shades of color against slightly blurred backdrop of greenery, water and blue sky
New Zealand Travel Guide | White camper van in New Zealand amidst lupins against mountain backdrop. Lupins in foreground in shades of purple, white and deep pink, during spring blooming season in New Zealand

Places to Stay in Lake Tekapo Area:

Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park

Peppers Bluewater Resort

If traveling with a group + looking for a rental home

New Zealand Travel Guide | Woman in field of blooming lupins enjoys freedom camping near Lake Tekapo with L.L. Bean camping gear. Tall green hill and water in background, leading to a flower-filled field.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Massive field of purple flowers in spring bloom season in New Zealand, outlined by bright blue sky above the large flower field, a must-visit destination when traveling to New Zealand in spring
Travel New Zealand in the spring | Woman in white dress walking through field of purple and white lupin flowers in New Zealand
New Zealand Travel Guide | What To Experience on the South Island
New Zealand Travel Guide | Couple exploring the lupin fields in New Zealand during the spring

Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

After spending some time in the Lake Tekapo area, we started exploring the majestic and iconic southern alps. I don’t think I was mentally prepared for the sheer scale of these mountains. I was raised in Salt Lake City, UT around some of the most beautiful mountains in the world and experiencing Mount Cook and the surrounding peaks was still mind-blowing and extremely humbling.

Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is located 50km from Lake Pukaki Visitor Center and is easily accessed via the most undeniably epic roads you will ever journey down. We drove in early in the morning, around 5AM, with the clouds hanging low and the sky still hazy, which was WILDLY different looking than it looks in the afternoon, with turquoise water and clear sight of the humungous mountains jutting out from the ground.

I’ve seen photos of this place in the winter and it looks also exceptional so I’m sure all year round it’s worth visiting – the snow just might interfere with your hiking if you plan to do so. U

New Zealand Travel Guide | Massive snowy mountains in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
New Zealand Travel Guide | Person standing in the road taking in snow capped mountain view and blue skies, while traveling and visiting the South Island of beautiful New Zealand
New Zealand Travel Guide | Grassy landscape leading to a snowy grey 
majestic mountain, taken by traveler at Aoraki Mount Cook National Park.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Man dressed in casual clothing, traveling to New Zealand, stands in a winding road between green grassy hills, with peaks of gorgeous Mount Cook mountain visible in the background
New Zealand Travel Guide | Open road takes a turn, leading to Mount Cook National Park. Large mountain spotted with snow stands tall against the green terrain, along the road, captured on trip to New Zealand.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Woman traveling on New Zealand adventure wearing a white dress and walking on road toward towering mountains located at Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Mountain view shows mountains fading into soft haze in the distance.

Hiking in Mount Cook:

One afternoon, we hiked the iconic Hooker Valley Track to get a closer look of Mount Cook. The Hooker Valley Track is a very popular hike in the South Island and is one of the best ways to see the landscape of the national park. The hike is easily accessed from a parking lot and flat the entire way making it suitable for all ages.

The hike is a 10km round trip so don’t forget to wear suitable walking shoes. The weather turns quickly, so pack a reusable water bottle, snacks and a rain jacket. Allow yourself 3-4 hours to complete the hike, factoring in the time to stop and take photos and enjoy a bite to eat.

Places to stay in Mount Cook Area:

The Hermitage Hotel

Mt. Cook Lodge & Motels

Camping at Glen Tanner Park Centre

White Horse Hill Campground

New Zealand Travel Guide | Hiker with backpack makes way across narrow bridge at iconic Hooker Valley Track in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, in New Zealand. Tall snowy mountains await beyond the bridge.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Woman wearing blue jacket sits in nature near mountains while hiking iconic Hooker Valley Track in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand. Small rock lined stream passes through green valley at the foot of the mountains.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Hiker exploring New Zealand, wearing a backpack, stands at the edge of glacial lake at the base of Mount Cook accessed by the popular Hooker Valley Track on the South Island of New Zealand
New Zealand Travel Guide | Woman on New Zealand travel adventure mindfully connects with nature as she sits on a rock, looking at the mountains of Mount Cook. Nearby lake glistens in New Zealand sunlight.

Lake Pukaki

This lake is as frigid as it is BEAUTIFUL! I’ve never seen water so bright turquoise and crystal clear. I kept thinking ‘that looks fake.’ This is the lake closest to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, and in the photos below, you can see Mount Cook in the background. We loved stopping here! This is a great spot for freedom camping or to just spend a morning.

New Zealand Travel Guide | Couple on New Zealand adventure polar plunging into turquoise colored waters of Lake Pukaki near Aoraki Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand, with peaks of Mount Cook in the background
New Zealand Travel Guide | Couple playfully exploring blue water near Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Blue skies edge up to mountains visible in the distance from the water. Rocks peak from beneath the water, leading to deeper pool of blue hues.

Places To Eat Near Aoraki Mount Cook National Park + Lake Pukaki:

Tasman Delta Cafe

Old Mountaineer’s Cafe

Poppie’s Cafe in nearby town of Twizel

Wanaka, New Zealand

Wanaka, New Zealand was one of my favorite towns we visited during our almost month in New Zealand. I didn’t take many photos in town but there are lots of great restaurants, the views are spectacular and I loved the energy. Wanaka + Queenstown tied for my favorite towns in the South Island for sure! Here’s what we did when we were in the Wanaka area…

Blue Pools Track:

The Blue Pools walk near Lake Wanaka is a short hike across a few suspension bridges that bring you to these electric blue pools and rivers. It is certainly beautiful and exhilarating if you decide to take the plunge!

We went on a rainy day and the water was still very vibrant, I imagine it’s spectacular on a sunny day! There are many, many visitors to this spot and it felt very crowded. Keep that in mind! Also, the sand flies are REAL here. I think that’s the reason we both dipped in the water… the freezing cold was less painful than getting chewed by the bugs was!

New Zealand Travel Guide | Diving into the vibrant blue waters at the Blue Pools Track near Wanaka, New Zealand.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Woman sits at water's edge as man swims in a pool of vibrant blue waters at the Blue Pools Track near Wanaka, New Zealand.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Point of view capture of woman sitting on a rock in a blue pool of water during travel adventure to New Zealand.

Roy’s Peak

Although I’m hesitant to share this hike simply because of how overrun it is with tourists, I also understand that this it is one of the first hikes that populates when you search “South Island New Zealand hikes.” It is quite strenuous; I was panting going up and knees aching going down but the views are quite lovely. If you do go, avoid the heat of the day and be mindful of the earth and others hiking the trail when you are!

New Zealand Travel Guide | Remarkable view of Roy's Peak, one of the most popular South Island New Zealand hikes. Grassy landscape, wildflowers and pale blue skies, decorated with soft clouds. Turquoise water compliments New Zealand scenery in the distance.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Person jumping in the air at the top of Roy's Peak hike with mountains peeking from blue water in background.
New Zealand Travel Guide | oint of view scenery taken by hikers at Roy's Peak. Grassy hills parted by dirt path lead to spot where hikers enjoy a needed rest during Roy's Peak hike in New Zealand travel.
Sheep lining the Roy's Peak hike in Wanaka, New Zealand.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Scenic view of blue water and flowers at South Island New Zealand hiking trail. Billowing clouds in sky hover over mountains shaded in brilliant blue, a pleasant reward after a challenging hike at Roy's Peak
New Zealand Travel Guide | Young couple stands together on path of rugged terrain, in front of bright blue water and majestic mountains, after a hike at popular Roy's Peak, during New Zealand vacation.

Places To Stay in Wanaka:

Stayed at Mt. Aspiring Holiday Park

Places To Eat + Shop in Wanaka:

Big Fig — SO YUMMY!

Kia Whakapai

Lake Bar 

Boa Boa Food Co. 


We were only in Queenstown briefly but it was enough to get us excited to come back! Queenstown is a gorgeous city with lots to explore and experience. I recommend flying into Queenstown if you’re not going to explore the North Island and then make your way down like we did.

We mainly ate our way around the city and spent time by the water BUT we also made the drive up to Glenorchy for the afternoon and caught the gondola up for views of the city before we headed to the airport to head home on our last evening.

Delicious vegan breakfast spread at Bespoke Kitchen cafe in Queenstown, New Zealand.
View from the gondola in Queenstown New Zealand. One of the best things to do in Queenstown, New Zealand via @elanaloo +
Charcuterie and bloody marys at Little Blackwood in Queenstown, New Zealand via @elanaloo +
Charcuterie and bloody marys at Little Blackwood in Queenstown, New Zealand via @elanaloo +

Places To Eat + Visit in Queenstown:

Bespoke Kitchen for a foodie breakfast or lunch

Little Blackwood for charcuterie and bloody marys


Botswana Butchery

Halo Forbidden Bite

The World Bar & Kitchen 

The Exchange

Blue Kanu 

Glow Day Spa

Places To Stay in Queenstown:

Rydges Hotel

The Dairy Hotel

New Zealand Travel Guide | Traveler in orange canoe, exploring the deep green water at legendary Milford Sound while traveling to New Zealand. Experiencing quickly changing weather during trip to Milford Sound.

Milford Sound

We ended our trip and started our year in the legendary Milford Sound. This enchanting place has been deemed the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ and for good reason! We camped in Te Anau the night before venturing to Milford, so we woke early to make our boat, since the drive is 2.5 hours. If you stay in Te Anau, I recommend stopping here: Naturally Fiordland Pizza Cafe, The Fat Duck or Sandfly Cafe.

Tips For Traveling To Milford Sound:

There are no gas stations after Te Anau so make sure to fill up!

Bring warm, waterproof layers because weather changes so quickly in the rainforest. We had pouring rain for our boat cruise out, and then gorgeous, blue skies and sunshine for our kayaking and boat cruise back. You just never know! And don’t trust the weather man.

Also, sand flies are HORRID in Milford Sound. I’ve never experienced anything like this! We could barely be outside without getting eaten alive.

There is a Maori legend that god Tu-te-raki-whanoa carved out the masterpiece that is Milford Sound and when goddess, Hinenui-te-Po saw the beauty, she wanted to preserve it from the harm of humans so she released sandflies, te namu (little devils), into Milford Sound to remind people of their humanity and to remind them not to linger in such a beautiful place.

Rainbow over waterfalls on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound via @elanaloo +
Walkway to cruise & kayak tour in Milford Sound via @elanaloo +
Mitre Peak in Milford Sound, one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand via @elanaloo +
New Zealand Travel Guide | Woman in blue rain jacket, traveling in New Zealand, looks over boat's edge at Milford Sound, enjoying the peace and beauty of nature and the surrounding grassy inclines and green waters.
Shooting the waterfalls in Milford Sound via @elanaloo +
New Zealand Travel Guide | Man explores waters of Milford Sound while traveling through New Zealand. Low clouds roll over marsh-like borders, surrounded by mountainous inclines and emptying into jewel colored rippling water
New Zealand Travel Guide | Enormous mossy mountains stand tall amidst mysterious billows of fog as a New Zealand traveler takes a break from paddling small orange canoe, to take in the wonder of Milford Sound.
Couple kayaking in Milford Sound. New Zealand Travel Guide via @elanaloo +
New Zealand Travel Guide | Bright blue sky adorned with wispy white clouds overhead as couple smiles at each other as they enjoy the hundreds of waterfalls in beautiful Milford Sound.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Woman on a tour boat looking at Mitre Peak in Milford Sound.
Waterfalls in Milford Sound via @elanaloo +
New Zealand Travel Guide | Man swinging on beach swing in Milford Sound. Fog surrounds mountains in the distance, as New Zealand traveler appreciates the beauty of Milford Sound.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Woman traveling in New Zealand stands at the foot of Mitre Peak in Milford Sound. Sun ripples across water as traveler stands behind rocky terrain and gazes into the distance
New Zealand Travel Guide | Sunset over Mitre Peak in Milford Sound. Shades of pink and orange extend across the sky as the traveler's day draws to an end at Milford Sound.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Starry night sky at Milford Sound, with shades of orange blending with the dark sky, illuminated by a brilliant of stars. Large mountains create shadowy foreground at Milford Sound.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Traveling couple smiles and holds a bottle of champagne during fun New Zealand travel adventure with mountain and foliage in the background. Cloudy sky and misty background surrounded by lush greenery.
New Zealand Travel Guide | Popping a bottle of champagne to celebrate the New Year in Milford Sound! via @elanaloo +

Milford Sound Tour Companies:

Southern Discoveries
We personally had heard wonderful things about Southern Discoveries so we chose to book their Cruise + Kayak package. You’re provided coffee and tea on the boat ride, they have rain gear for you if you didn’t bring any and given a picnic lunch (they have a vegetarian + vegan option although it’s just a veggie sandwich).

You get up close and personal with the waterfalls, there are hundreds if not thousands and I highly recommend standing at the front of the boat to experience the ‘glacial facial’ at Sterling Falls! Kayaking Harrison Cove was lovely and definitely our favorite part.

Other choices if Southern Discoveries is booked:

Real Journeys Milford Sound Cruise
Go Orange Milford Sound Cruise
Jucy Milford Sound Cruise

Places to stay in Milford Sound:

Milford Sound Lodge

Perfect place to stay in Milford Sound is Milford Sound Lodge. They have everything ranging from luxury accommodations to campsites just minutes from Milford Sound.

*Another note, there is no cell signal along the drive to Milford Sound, or in Milford Sound. Wifi is very spotty and slow so don’t count on that either. Take this time of your trip to relax from the outside world and immerse yourself in your awe-inspiring surroundings!

What We Packed for the South Island of New Zealand:


Meet the writer


Thanks for reading! I'm a photographer, writer & environmental advocate excited to be sharing regenerative solutions, ideas & concepts for our lives & businesses with you. 


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