How to see New Zealand in Under 10 days (South Island)

So far this year my biggest trip has been to New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii. My mom and I visited all three in January of 2020 to celebrate me graduating from the University of Tennessee in December. Blog posts on Australia and Hawaii will come in the next few weeks for today I wanted to focus on the amazing week we spent on the southern island of New Zealand. I will focus on what we did and what I would do if I went back or had stayed for longer. While we were in New Zealand we followed the route of the Kiwi Experience hop-on, hop-off bus but we rented a car and did it on our own instead of with a group. I would recommend if you are looking for a cheaper option looking into Kiwi Experience their trips are great and allow you to see a fair amount of the island in a short amount of time without having the added worry of driving on the other side of the road. https://www.kiwiexperience.com/

Our Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Land in Christchurch
  • Day 2: Take the train from Christchurch to Greymouth, rented a car and drove to Franz Josef
  • Day 3: Drive from Franz Josef to Wanaka
  • Day 4: Spend the morning in Wanaka and then drive to Queenstown
  • Day 5: Take a day trip to Milford Sound
  • Day 6: Spend the day exploring Queenstown
  • Day 7: Drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo
  • Day 8: Drive from Lake Tekapo to Christchurch, return the car and fly out

Christchurch, Greymouth and Franz Josef

Alpine Train – The first full day we were in New Zealand we took the Alpine Train from Christchurch to Greymouth to cross over the island and get a real view of the New Zealand Alps. The train only runs in their summer months so if you are going in the winter this will not be assessable to you. The train is beautiful and gives you a great view without having to worry about keeping your eyes on the road. There is a stop in Arthur’s Pass which a lot of people got off at so if you are interested in going to Arthur’s Pass (which we would do if we went again) I would recommend taking the train there. The train arrived in Greymouth on the west coast at around 1 or 2 pm which gave us the rest of the day to play with.

Greymouth – Greymouth is one of the larger towns on the west coast of the south island. There are fast food shops, restaurants, and shops if you want to explore the town. You can also travel north to see some beaches with big stone structures and an attraction called the Pancake Rocks which I would recommend if you have a full day to spend in the Greymouth area. We, however, were unable to stay since we had reservations in Franz Josef that night so we hit the road almost right away.

Stops from Greymouth to Franz Josef – There were a lot of beautiful stops on the road from Greymouth to Franz Josef that are worth the stop or detour. Our first stop along the way was in Hokitika. We explored the small town for a little bit seeing the beach which has the name spelled out in driftwood and is great if you are looking to stretch your legs. The real highlight of that area for us, however, was the Hokitika Gorge Scenic Reserve. This is about half an hour off Route 6 but it is well worth it! It is a short hike to a great view of a glacial river which is stunningly blue. You can also walk across a swing bridge to the other side and take a quick swim in the water if the weather permits but be careful to watch the current and be prepared for cold water!

Okarito Beach

After the Hokitika Gorge, we continued our trip further south stopping next in Okarito to see the Okarito Lagoon and Beach. The Okarito Lagoon was our favorite stop of the day. The lagoon is beautiful and has a great view of the mountains but the real highlight if the beach. The beach is unparalleled to any we saw on the trip. It is surrounded by towering cliffs and has roaring waves that crash against the beach. The waves are so rough that they create sort of a mist that hangs in the air making for great pictures and a nice walk down to the end of the beach where the sand, cliffs and water meet. We concluded our day by checking into our hotel in Franz Josef (The Oasis) and getting dinner at a restaurant in town (Alice May).

Franz Josef, Haast and Wanaka

Stops from Franz Josef to Haast – We began the next day exploring in Franz Josef we hiked about halfway to Franz Josef Glacier which was about half an hour. We wanted to see the glacier up close but ended up not having enough time. The hike up to the glacier is about an hour and a half round trip and involves walking in a river bed the second half of the way so it can be uneven but would be worth it if you have the time. There is also the option of taking a helicopter up and walking on either Franz Josef Glacier or Fox Glacier (just south of Franz Josef) which would be a great experience if you have the time and money to do so. After Franz Josef, we continued along to Lake Matheson.

Lake Matheson is another stop that is worth the detour it is a beautiful view of the lake with Mount Cook just behind it and if you are lucky on a calm day you can see the mountain reflected in the lake. There is also a small cafe and gift shop there if you want to stop for a quick bite to eat or a souvenir. The next stop on our way to Wanaka was Bruce Bay. Bruce Bay is a beautiful beach between Lake Matheson and Haast that is a great place to get out and stretch your legs. There didn’t seem to be a ton to do there but it’s worth a quick stop. After Bruce Bay, we stopped for lunch at The Salmon Farm Cafe & Shop in Paringa. This was a delicious stop with many fresh salmon options. The run-out towards the end of the day so trying to get there early is best. We stopped at two salmon farms on our trip and this was our favorite. Our final stop before Haast was Knights PT Lookout. Knights Lookout was a great way to see the west coast from above with its rock formations and beautiful blue water I would recommend stopping there for a quick photo before going on your way.

Haast – Haast is a great town but probably the last you will see on the West Coast unless you continue down to Jackson Bay. It is worth a stop even overnight if you want to split up the drive since doing this all in one day is a lot!

Stops from Haast to Wanaka – Continuing from Haast to Wanaka you are following the Haast River and through the Haast Pass which is beautiful but quite windy so be careful if driving. On the way to Wanaka, you pass by three waterfalls which are 100% worth stopping at. We didn’t know where they were along the route we just kept our eyes peeled for signs about stops and stopped at each one. Most of the waterfalls are a short walk right off the highway. The last long stop we made on the way to Wanaka after the waterfalls were the Blue Pools Walk & Devils Bath. The Blue Pools are about a 15-minute walk from the road but be careful not to stop at the overflow parking by mistake that is what we did and it ended up being about an hour round trip which was long after the day we had. The Blue Pools are another beautiful stop. There is a swing bridge that leads you over to the pools which you can walk over with another more sturdy, suspension bridge which people were jumping off of when we were there which I wish I had done. There are also longer hiking trails that you can take to explore more of the area. 

Panorama of Lake Hawea

Lake Wanaka and Hawea – the last portion of the drive to Wanaka was by far my favorite. The entire time we bordered Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea around sunset which was both breathtaking and at that time were the most beautiful thing I had seen in New Zealand. Pictures don’t do either of the lakes justice they were both stunningly beautiful with mountains bordering them on all sides and at golden hour it was even better. There were a lot of stops for lookouts along the way and they were 100% worth stopping at.

Wanaka and Queenstown

Wanaka – Wanaka was by far my town in New Zealand. It was the perfect small town with beautiful views all around you. The town on the banks of Lake Wanaka was full of beautiful shops and amazing lake views. There were a lot of activities that you could do on the lake such as paddle boarding, boat riding, and kayaking but be warned the water is COLD. We ended up walking around for the majority of the morning having brunch, looking at the shops, buying a few things here and there and dipping our toes in the water before heading to Queenstown. We ended up eating at the restaurant Kai Whaka Pai for all three meals we had in the town it was so good and had so many vegan options that we didn’t want to go anywhere else.

Stops from Wanaka to Queenstown – We only made three stops on our drive from Wanaka to Queenstown but they were all worth the stop! Our first stop was at a farm stand in Cromwell we passed a huge number along the road and finally just picked one. The raspberries and cherries were unparalleled we ended up eating them along most of our long drives as a healthy snack. Our second stop was at Mount Difficulty which is a winery at the top of a hill near Cromwell. It has beautiful views of the entire area and for only $5 you can do a wine tasting which they will reimburse you if you buy two bottles of wine after the tasting. The wine was great but the view was even better. The day we stopped there happened to be my birthday and it was amazing. The final stop we made was at the Kawarau Suspension Bridge which is the site of the first commercial bungee jump. You can stop there and watch from a platform as people jump from the bridge and as some people zip line next to the river.

Queenstown – We arrived in Queenstown in the afternoon we went to dinner at a restaurant called the Fat Lamb and then got ice cream from Patagonia and watched the sunset. We finished the night with a glass of the Pinot Noir we bought at the winery earlier that day. It was the perfect end to my 23rd birthday.

Milford Sound

One of the days we were in Queenstown we took a trip to Milford Sound. I had seen so many pictures of Milford Sound and it was even more amazing in person. It is about a four-hour drive from Queenstown so if I was going to do it again I would go with a company that allows you to fly there, take a cruise and fly back. This way it wouldn’t consume a whole day of our trip driving there and back. Milford Sound was definitely worth the time though it is amazing seeing towering mountains over the fjord and the waterfalls. We took a two-hour cruise and it was great! We would for sure go back there if we go to New Zealand again. If you end up driving make sure to leave plenty of time and to go early enough to make some stops on the way back. Places like The Chasm and Eglinton Valley are great places to stop along the way for some amazing views.

Queenstown

Activities in Queenstown – If you have an extra day in Queenstown it is worth it to take a day to relax and take in the town. It is full of great shops and restaurants and of course many extreme sports to partake in. If you want to go bungee jumping, sky diving, white water rafting, jet boating or just want to relax, eat and shop you can do it all in Queenstown. I chose to partake in a more relaxed sport of paddleboarding which turned out to be less relaxing than I thought since there was somewhat of a wake on the water every time a speed boat went past and I would have to brace myself to keep my balance on the board.

Restaurants – We went to some really great restaurants while we were in Queenstown which all were very good about accommodating my allergy. Our highlights were: Miss Lucy’s Pizza, Yonder (Brunch) and Public Kitchen & Bar (Dinner).

Skyline Gondola – If you are looking for a panorama views of the town and the mountains and lake surrounding it you should definitely take a trip up the gondola to the top of the mountain. There is a gift shop, observation deck, bungee jumping platform, luge and restaurant. My mom and I got a drink at the top overlooking at the breathtaking view.

Lake Tekapo

Lake Pukaki

The Drive – On the drive to Lake Tekapo we only made one stop at Lake Pukaki. Lake Pukaki was amazing it gave us a view of Mount Cook. It was worth the view scenic stops we made along the lake to get out stretch our legs and take some pictures. We soon got to Lake Tekapo.

Lake Tekapo – There is not a ton to do in Lake Tekapo during the day. You can walk over the pedestrian bridge to see the church in the center of town or visit the shops. We did just that and then we went grabbed a burger at Our Dog Friday which was good. The real highlight of Lake Tekapo, however, comes out when the sun goes down. THE STARS! There is very little light pollution in Lake Tekapo so the stars shine brighter than I’ve ever seen them. There are various activities you can do involving the stars from taking a trip up a mountain to soaking in the thermal baths while looking at the stars. We opted for just finding some benches in the area and lying back so we could get a good view and watching the stars for a while. If I was able to do it over again I would opt for the soak and star gaze, make sure you are prepared to stay up late though I would recommend taking a nap so that you don’t fall asleep during the gazing part.

Things I would Change if I did it Again

Length of the days – Our days were super long. We would start every day at around 9am and would barely make check in at our hotels around 9pm. If we were to do it again we would’ve added a night in Greymouth and a night in Haast to break up the long days. With the extra days we would probably travel further south down to Jackson Bay and further north to Westport to see more of the coast.

Dunedin – If we had an extra day or two on the South Island we probably would have traveled more on the east coast of the island to places such as Dunedin and then traveled up the coast in order to get back to Christchurch instead of going inland to Lake Tekapo. Lake Tekapo was nice but seeing more of the coast would have been great.

Next Up: Knoxville, TN, US

Wouldn’t Underestimate the Windy Roads – The roads along out trip were crazy windy. We definitely underestimated how touch driving ourselves would be. We ended up being fine but there were a lot of times where it felt like there wasn’t much space on the road for our car. I would recommend taking a bus if you are an uncomfortable driver.

Disclaimer: I do not in any way claim to be an expert on the cities I am traveling to or the countries that they are in. I would love to hear if you have other recommendations that differ from mine. Please be kind, I am new to blogging and sharing all of my life online.

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