Travel Guide: New Zealand Road Trip – South Island

After a week on the North Island of New Zealand, which included Auckland, a few days on the road, and a final stop in Wellington, my friend Sharon and I arrived in Picton, a tiny town with a ferry terminal.

We picked up our new car, a red Toyota Corolla that I immediately named Roxanne, and then had a good meal, walked the one commercial street, and went to a phenomenal bakery for breakfast. And then off we went!

Our next stop was Nelson, which was really exciting because a friend and former colleague was living there! Along with another school family, we had plans to meet her upon arrival in Nelson, which was really nice. Nelson reminded me of a larger version of the town where I grew up. Cute streets to walk down, a pretty church, benches by the river. Nelson also had really beautiful flowers.

The primary reason for our stop in Nelson was to visit Abel Tasman National Park, which was an absolutely magical day. The weather was phenomenal for sea kayaking, hiking, and a dip in the sea. We even saw seals lounging on the rocks! Each lookout from the cliffs was more beautiful than the last and the views took my breath away again and again.

Abel Tasman remained a highlight of the trip for me and it also stands out as something I’d do differently next time. I’d pack differently, plan differently, and camp for a night. That would allow for a longer kayak trip as well as a longer hike. The stars throughout New Zealand were the biggest and brightest I’ve ever seen and I can only imagine what it would have felt like to see them there.

Next, we headed to Punakaiki to spend New Year’s Eve on the beach. The drive was beautiful . . .

. . . and left us very excited for our night on the beach. We ate cheese, crackers, and fruit and drank wine sitting on the rocks. It grew cold as the night deepened and we greeted 2019 under the Milky Way.

As our first activity of the new year, we decided to hike a 12km loop through a rainforest with streams, up a cliff, and onto a working farm with horses. We met very few people along the way and were glad to start the day in a beautiful place with our bodies moving.

On the way back to the car we took a quick detour to see the pancake rocks and blow holes that Punakaiki is known for.

That afternoon we drove to Franz Josef Glacier, which was my bucket list item for our trip. I first learned of Franz Josef when I was living in Malaysia and planned a trip then, which I didn’t take because I couldn’t afford it. It was really special to see that dream through, but the weather did not cooperate at all. It was pouring when we hiked the glacier the next morning and our guide, Lisa of Glacier Valley Eco Tours, could not have been happier. This was a very typical West Coast day, she assured us, and we’d be able to see the waterfalls that are only visible in the rain.

As we walked, Lisa told us more about plants than I’d ever heard and it was a real joy to learn from her. Though it would have been nice to be able to see the glacier a little more clearly, I was just so happy to be there. Getting soaked to the skin was less joyful but I learned an important lesson – when a tour company asks if you’d like to rent wet gear, you say yes.

The sun came out in the afternoon and we couldn’t resist going back out for another hike. We didn’t go back to the glacier but everything looked completely different!

The next morning we picked up a pair of hitchhiking German siblings and brought them as far as Lake Matheson. This was the only lake that we visited that was small enough to actually walk all the way around, which we were more than happy to do.

The landscape completely changed as we continued on our drive to Lake Hawea. What had been glaciers became mountains and deserts; rainforest gave way to tougher plants and grasses.

I’d read that Mount Iron in nearby Wanaka was a good place for a hike, so we drove a bit further in that direction. As promised, it afforded beautiful views of the mountains that were everywhere.

The next morning before getting back in the car we hiked along Lake Hawea itself. The day grew hot quickly and we were glad to be out and about early.

We stopped for on the road for yet another picture of mountains . . .

. . . and then in quaint Arrowtown for lunch on our way to Queenstown. I’ll take you around Queenstown and Milford Sound in a separate post so bear with me while we skip ahead three days. . . .

And then we arrived in Lake Tekapo! Lake Tekapo was our last short stay and our last real road trip stop. The landscape grew more desolate as we drove.

We were excited to learn that Lake Tekapo is located in an International Dark Sky Reserve. I spent some time walking on the beach when we arrived late in the afternoon.

We spent the night in a cabin on a campground and though I had to wrap myself in all of my layers and a blanket to stay outside, I was determined to see the stars come out. It was silent and dark and I greeted the Milky Way again. Such a perfect way to conclude our road trip around New Zealand’s South Island.

In our two weeks on the South Island, we spent much of our time on the road but stopped for a few days in Queenstown and Christchurch. Posts on both places are in the works. Stay tuned!

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