A Three-Week Tour of the South Island
by Jjohnson on March 2, 2011
When planning my trip to New Zealand, my limiting factor was time; I only had three weeks of vacation. New Zealand is an amazing country with countless outdoor activities that probably requires six weeks to tour properly. Consequently, I decided to tour only the South Island. My goal was to explore the outdoors and natural wonders of the island as efficiently as possible. I also planned the trip for February, a summer month for New Zealand, since it was miserably cold at that time in my hometown in the U.S. Lastly, I planned the trip around two hikes--the Routeburn and Abel Tasman Treks.
QUEENSTOWN / ROUTEBURN TREK
Queenstown was my starting and ending point and makes a dramatic impression disembarking from the airplane. It is a beautiful city set on a lake with surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, it is full of tourists, and although the permanent population is only 27,000, it has terrible traffic and parking is scarce.
Queenstown is the adventure capital of the country with every adrenalin sport you could imagine. I’m not good with speed or heights, so I passed on the adventure sports; but everyone I talked to who bungee jumped, canyoned, jet boated, skydived or paraglided had a blast. Queenstown was my base for the Routeburn Trek. The Routeburn is rated one of the top 10 hikes in the world. Other magnificent treks in the area include the Greenstone and Caples, Rees-Dart and Milford Sound treks.
The government has huts along the hikes--Department of Conservation (DOC) huts--that you can sleep in for USD$50/night. I stayed in the Routeburn Falls, Mackenzie and Howden huts on the Routeburn Trek. Make sure to reserve your hut weeks/months in advance and pick up your tickets at the DOC office the day before you leave.
The hike was absolutely beautiful, but the weather challenging. The Fiordland part of the South Island is basically a rainforest. Milford Sound, for example, gets the second most rainfall in the world. Wish I had known this before hiking. It rained five out of the seven days I was in the region. Also, it was cold and wet above bush/tree line, dropping below freezing at night. The experience was great, however, even in the rain and cold.
After finishing the Routeburn, I took a boat cruise on Milford Sound. The sounds are amazing, and one easily loses perspective--the waterfalls in the sounds are twice as high as Niagara Falls. There are many sounds in the area, and from other tourists I learned that Doubtful Sound is a better experience than Milford because it is just as beautiful and less crowded.
WANAKA / FRANZ JOSEPH GLACIER
After the Routeburn Trek, I rented a car in Queenstown and drove up the West Coast. The route is sparsely populated with few gas stations, so if you are driving, make sure to fill up with fuel--two to three times more expensive than in the U.S.--when gas is available. My first stop was the quaint city of Wanaka. I really enjoyed Wanaka; the nice weather likely contributed to this. If you stay in Wanaka, Wanaka Bakpaka was a good hostel.
Next was Franz Josef Glacier. The two glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef are really interesting and you should devote a full day to exploring them. From the car park, tourists can walk up to the glaciers, but you have to take a guided tour to walk on the ice. Travelers I met who participated in the full day or helitours enjoyed the experience.
HOKITIKA / PUNAKAIKI
Hokitika was the next city I drove through (no need to stay the night), and the best place to buy New Zealand greenstone (jade). There is a wide variety of greenstone quality and carving skill. Although it is illegal to take uncarved greenstone out of the country, somehow about half the jade is carved in China and shipped back to be sold to tourists. There were only two shops which I thought had high quality carving and stone--Heritage Jade and Tectonic Jade. The jewelry pieces and sculptures are not cheap, but were less expensive than anywhere else on the island. According to the Maori custom, you should not buy jade for yourself, but wear it for a bit and give it as a gift to someone else. As I type this, I have greenstone earrings on which I plan on giving my mother.
Punakaiki was my next stop on the West Coast. I stayed at an amazing hostel right on the beach (Punakaiki Beach Hostel), and had the beach to myself in gorgeous weather. This was definitely my favorite location for relaxation, and where I watched my first sunset in six months. Punakaiki is home to the Pancake Rocks, which are definitely worth stopping for. At night, I visited a glowworm cave which was enlightening.
ABEL TASMAN TREK / RENWICK
The next phase of my trip focused on the Abel Tasman Trek, which is located in the very north of the South Island. I only walked two days of the trek secondary to time constraints and regret not spending the full three days to complete the hike. Again, I stayed in DOC huts. The weather was perfect, the ocean bright blue and the sand golden. One could not ask for a more picturesque setting.
Before starting your hike, make sure to look at the tide table since there are two crossings which can only be accessed two to three hours around low tide. Although the majority of people visiting the park did short day hikes in Abel Tasman, I highly recommend camping or spending the night in a DOC hut. As an alternative to hiking, you can kayak the coast of the trek.
From Abel Tasman, I headed to Nelson for the night. From the Nelson/Picton region, you can access Queen Charlotte Trek. I did not hike the Queen Charlotte, but saw pictures from a Canadian couple, and it looked inviting. From Nelson, I traveled to Renwick in the heart of the wine country and spent a day biking around the wineries. I was a little disappointed after discovering that the wine I bought from the vineyard was two dollars less at the local grocery store.
KAIKOURA / CHRISTCHURCH / DUNEDIN
As I drove down the East Coast, my first stop was Kaikoura for whale watching. The trip was a success since I saw three sperm whales and hundreds of dolphins, but the wind was strong and I got seasick. The nausea lasted for three days.
From Kaikoura, I drove to Christchurch which is the largest city on the South Island with around 350,000 inhabitants. I enjoyed visiting the art gallery and the art center in Christchurch. The next morning, I left the city to travel to Dunedin, missing the catastrophic earthquake in Christchurch by three hours. I was unbelievably lucky since there were more than 75 fatalities from the quake.
On the road to Dunedin, I stopped to observe blue penguins at Oamaru. The warehouse limestone building district in Oamaru right by the penguin watching area was enjoyable. There was good shopping, and I had an excellent hot pie (vegetable curry) from the bakery. A stop at Moeraki on the coast to view the boulders is worthwhile. There was nothing to the town of Dunedin, and after one night, I traveled back to Queenstown.
The long drives over the last three days made this part of my trip stressful. Ideally, I would have stayed four weeks on the South Island. With the extra time, I would have hiked another day at Abel Tasman, driven through Arthur’s Pass and Mount Cook (highest peak on South Island) in the Alps, and traveled to Stewart Island at the southern tip. For those traveling to New Zealand with limited vacation time, I hope this article provides you with a useful itinerary. Have fun on your travels!
A NOTE ON CAR RENTALS
I think it is worthwhile to make a few comments about car rentals on the South Island. First, since the South Island is scarcely populated, it was very easy getting to my destinations. Second, in New Zealand, they drive on the left-hand side with the driver sitting on the right-hand side of the car, which took a couple of days to get use to. There are several “give way to the car on the right” rules which I actually never figured out. Last, there is a reason why rental cars are so banged up. The roads frequently get washed out secondary to rain leaving gravel everywhere. The gravel makes driving dangerous, causing the car to slip and rocks fly up hitting the car windshield. Every rental car I saw had scratches, dents, worn tires, etc. However, without the rental car, there is no way a person could see the majority of the South Island in three weeks.