We spent December 1 – December 11 traveling through the beautiful South Island of New Zealand – a trip I would recommend to anyone. Thanks to exstensive research, recommendations from friends, and referencing Backpacking Matt and PlanitNZ several times – I think we planned a perfect 10 day itinerary.
Day 1: Christchurch & Getting Our Camper Van
We flew into Christchurch super late so we stayed for one night at the Airport Palms Motel (clean and cheap) and then picked up our home for 10 days… our 6-berth camper the next morning from Apollo/Star RV.
Day 2: Kaikoura
We started off on the 2.5 hour drive North from Christchurch to Kaikoura and made it just in time for our 12:30PM swim with the Dolphins at Dolphin Encounters. This company was fantastic. They take you out into the open ocean all geared up in thick wetsuits with expert guides to find pods of wild dolphins excited to swim with you. We had heard wonderful things from some friends who spent 40 minutes playing with heaps of dolphins on their trip in. Each of us all saw our fair share of dolphins and were incredibly satisfied with the experience, but because we didn’t get the 40 minutes+ of playtime – Dolphin Encounters gave each person a 70% refund!
We had some amazing seafood (look for the The Original World Famous Kaikoura Seafood BBQ food car, but then go to the food car next door to it – it’s way better) and spent the night in Kaikoura at the Top 10 Holiday Park.
Day 3: Ohau Stream walk & Punakaiki
Before we set off on the 5/6 hour drive across the Island to the West Coast – we stopped for a 15 minute stroll at the Ohau Stream where we saw Seal Pups. Amazing.
A full day of driving (and stopping for multiple jumping pics at stunning locations along the way) and we made it to Punakaiki Beach to catch a gorgeous sunset.
Day 4: Punakaiki to Franz Josef Glacier
We explored Punakaiki and it’s famous Pancake Rocks before embarking on another full day drive South to Franz Josef Glacier.
Unfortunately, upon arrival in Franz – the weather took a bit of turn and it was clear that we weren’t going to be able to do our glacier helicopter hike the next morning. So we opted to have an amazing dinner Alice May’s in Franz Glacier.
Day 5: Monro Beach Walk en route to Wanaka
Since we weren’t able to do our original Franz Glacier Heli-Hike as planned due to the rain…we started off on the drive from Franz to Wanaka (about 3 hours). On our way, we stopped for an easy hour long walk through a rain forest to Monro Beach. This beach is also a breeding ground for the Fiordland Crested Penguin, but we came a bit late in the season so we didn’t see any penguins…but we did see (read: were attacked by) several sand flies. It’s a beautiful walk, but bring bug spray and something to cover up with to protect yourself from the flies.
After our walk, we headed off for Wanaka – an adorable lakeside town that was described to us as “Queenstown for Adults”. I would have loved to spend a bit more time here and possibly come back for a trip during the ski season. We set up camp at the Aspiring Campervan and Holiday park (which was lovely and clean) and then had dinner in town at Wanaka Ale House right on the lake.
Day 6: Amisfield and Queenstown
The next day we started off on the quick hour long drive to Amisfield, a beautiful vineyard with a very well recommended restaurant just 10 minutes away from Queenstown. They are known for their “Trust the Chef” menu so we opted for that and enjoyed an amazing four-course lunch with wine pairings. We, of course, also purchased a few bottles to enjoy during the rest of the trip and a case to ship home (only $10 to ship a selection of wines that can be found in AU, but aren’t easy to find and $50 to ship wines not found in AU).
After lunch we headed off into Queenstown. After 5 nights in a campervan, we were ready for a little luxury so we’d planned for 3 nights in an amazing house in Queenstown which we found via Airbnb. The house was amazing and our first views of Queenstown were stunning.
Day 7: Queenstown
This was the day we’d originally planned to go skydiving. Queenstown is nicknamed the “adventure capitol of the world” so we were hoping to take advantage of that, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t as agreeable as we would have liked. The rest of the group opted to go canyoning (getting into a wetsuit and jumping off waterfalls, etc). I opted to get my nails done and get a massage. There is something for everyone in this little city.
Day 8: Milford Sound & Queenstown
By Day 8 the weather had cleared up a bit which was perfect timing for our early morning flight to Milford Sound with Air Milford and our Milford Sound cruise with Jucy Cruizes. The flight was amazing. We’d originally planned to do the 5 hour drive each way to Milford, but I’m so glad we did the flight instead – the views were fantastic. Well worth the extra cost in my opinion.
The great part about the flight to Milford is that you also save a lot of time. We left at 7:30AM and were back in Queenstown by noon. We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out in Queenstown. I highly recommend (for children and adults of all ages) riding the Skyline Gondola up to the top and then doing the Luge – so much fun…with the exception of this moment.
Day 9: Lake Pukaki en route to Mount Cook
After a quick stop at our favourite Queenstown eateries – Fergburger and Fergbakery, we set off towards Mount Cook where we spent our final night on the road. If we had the time, we might have stopped at one of the many vineyards on our way out of Queenstown through Gibbston Valley, but we were on a schedule so we stopped for some photos at the gorgeous Lake Pukaki before setting up camp at the White Horse Hill campsite beneath Mount Cook. This was one of our favourite campsites with awesome trails nearby.
Day 10: Lake Tekapo and Christchurch
Since we had to return the camper van by 4:30 back in Christchurch – we had a nice breakfast at the Old Mountaineers Cafe – an adorable little spot in Mount Cook Village, before heading off on our way. A quick picture stop at Lake Tekapo was absolutely necessary – such a beautiful spot and a fabulous way to end the trip.
As our flight was super early the next morning, we stayed a final night in Christchurch as the same motel we spent our first night. A note on spending time in Christchurch – the city is still very much affected by the 2011 earthquakes. It was incredibly sad to see the doors to so many businesses in the once-bustling downtown area still with broken windows and shut down completely. In fact, only just recently have some bars and restaurants begun to rebuild and reopen. We found it incredibly difficult to find a place to eat dinner. All of the restaurants we called were either closed down or fully booked with 2hour+ waits. We got really lucky and had a fantastic dinner at a place called King of Snakes downtown. Really hoping to see more rebuilding of the city on our next trip to New Zealand.
Bottom Line: New Zealand is amazing. I can’t wait to go back!