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!
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.
Places to stay in Abel Tasman:
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.
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.
Places to Stay in Lake Tekapo Area:
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
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:
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.
Places To Eat Near Aoraki Mount Cook National Park + Lake Pukaki:
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!
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!
Places To Stay in Wanaka:
Stayed at Mt. Aspiring Holiday Park
Places To Eat + Shop in Wanaka:
Big Fig — SO YUMMY!
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.
Places To Eat + Visit in Queenstown:
Bespoke Kitchen for a foodie breakfast or lunch
Little Blackwood for charcuterie and bloody marys
Places To Stay in Queenstown:
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.
Milford Sound Tour Companies:
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:
Places to stay in 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!