One word – Paradise !
Why New Zealand? Not that you need a reason, but given the political unrest and terror attacks in so many parts of the world, we wanted to visit a country that appears to have stayed immune to the negativity that seems to be consuming the world. We just want to get far away from here and live another life… if only for a few days!
Over 9 days, we crafted an itinerary to explore Christchurch and drive through the famous Canterbury Plains through Arthur’s Pass. Then make our way down the wild West Coast, with its incredible glaciers, visit picturesque Wanaka and end our journey with luxury and adventure in Queenstown.
We flew into Christchurch from San Francisco and out of Queenstown
Day 1: Christchurch
Day 2: Arthur’s Pass – Greymouth
Day 3: Hokitika gorge, Franz Josef Glacier, Lake Matheson
Day 4: Haast Blue Pools, Lake Hawea, Wanaka
Day 5: Wanaka
Day 6: Cardrona, Arrowtown, Gibbston Valley Vineyards, Queenstown
Day 7: Milford Sound, Te Anau, Fiordland National Park
Day 8: Queenstown, Glenorchy, Paradise
Day 9: Queenstown
We considered living out of a campervan for the entire trip, having the option to camp out under the stars anywhere in New Zealand – sounds like a dream right! However, a week before we left, Mother Nature decided to drop a massive earthquake, 7.8 on the scale, only 100 miles north of Christchurch. There were tsunami warnings, after tremors and heavy rainfall predicted to hit the south island during our stay.While travel advisory suggested we postpone our trip, but we decided to wing it!
The campervan sounded like an unwise idea given the windspeeds and the rainfall, so we decided to rent a car from Jucy and stay at Airbnbs … best decision! One of my fav things about traveling is ibeing able to mingle with the locals in their homes … Airbnbs in New Zealand were beyond comfortable!
Something I noticed in NZ is they have very, very few large multinational chains through out the country. The big cities like Christchurch and Queenstown had maybe a couple Burger Kings and Mc Donalds – but that’s about it. The country takes pride in showcasing local talent everywhere – food, clothing, services – name it. While there is of course Hertz and Avis, Jucy is the most popular! You’ll see their cars and campervans all over the country!
Day 1: Christchurch
So we land in Christchurch early in the morning and picked up our Jucy rental – a zippy little Fiat, loaded up our bags and headed up to the airbnb.
This airbnb was the most adorable little summer house that had a gorgeous yard, a super loving puppy who greeted us, the kindest hosts and was literally 10 mins to the beach!
Fast-changing and funky, Christchurch is the South Island’s largest city scattered with Old English gardens and contrasting pop-up bars and container-based shopping malls in the city center.
Punting in Avon:
We decided to spend the morning “Punting in Avon” river – which is basically kayaking in the crystal clear Avon flowing through the lush Botanical gardens of Christchurch.
After that we decided to get some steak and try the local brew Speights’ golden lager (a fav now), and head down to the beach! The hubby and I spent hours just soaking up the sun in the middle of November 🙂
We drove around Sunmer beach and up to Taylor’s Mistake to witness the sun set over the city! The drive up and back down was spectacular with breathtaking views of the city in the distance.
Eventually we ended up at Clink – a boutique wine room serving locally grown Pinot Noir and fantastic small plates ! On the way back, we spotted maybe a trillion stars in the clear night sky over the beach !
Day 2: Arthur’s Pass
You can choose to drive to Greymouth, or catch the TranzAlpine train, regarded as one of the most scenic train journeys in the world. The train trip takes roughly 4.5 hours, with stops along the way… but I read that the drive to Arthur’s Pass is a photographer’s paradise and we wanted the ability to take our time to make stops as and when we felt. We got on the road early making our way to Arthur’s Pass – about a 2.5 hr drive from Christchurch.
Something we learnt quickly enough – in New Zealand, its not the destination, its the journey that makes it all so surreal. Rural serenity and friendly towns lead you across the Canterbury Plains. The road then winds up into the skiing areas of Porter Heights and Craigieburn before following the Waimakariri and Bealey Rivers to Arthur’s Pass. In New Zealand, every single road, in every direction – takes you to is breathtaking! We ended up making 10 stops on our way up to Arthur’s Pass, taking us a good 4 hrs to get there – but OMG check the pictures below… can you blame us?!
This was one of my fav stops on the way – just past a one lane bridge…
Obviously my pictures don’t do justice, but even then.. I can’t believe this place was for real! Lush greenery everywhere, blossoming yellow flowers across the grey/blue ice capped Souther Alps…
Every few hundreds meters we’d encounter a working farm – lengths of the farm dotted with sheep and cattle. Some even had venison!
By the time we got to Arthur’s Pass, it started to get really cold and windy! All bundled up, we decided to do couple of hikes – one was up the ambitious Avalanche Peak Trail .. which we attempted for about an hour but was closed off due to the weather conditions.
The other one was to Devil’s Punch Bowl Falls, a lovely hike up to the mouth of gushing waterfalls melting down from the Alps..!
After the few hikes and some beer and fries we made our way down to the west coast where the misty mountains gradually give way to classic west coast river and forest scenery.
Greymouth is one of the largest of the remote towns in the west, but overall the West coast is very sparsely populated housing only 1% of all of the Island’s population. Most of the west shuts down by 7pm.. we did however want to visit Monteith’s Brewery to sample their world famous beer flights. We sat by the fireplace and wrapped up the day with a juicy steak, a LOT of beer and fries! We checked in to an adorable airbnb right by the beach!
Again, the little cozy blue house we stayed at was super comfy, had the nicest nicest hosts and another super cute lil puppy!
Day 3: The road between Greymouth and Hokitika provides great views of the wild west coast. We took several detour to the beach, bush walk and breathed the salt spray air.
Hokitika Eco Reserve:
On our way out of Greymouth, we ended up chatting with the owner of a fantastic Brunch place known for its Honey… who told us to check out the Eco reserve. Glad we did, coz we got to see couple Kiwis and some other animals like eels etc. Given Kiwis are nocturnal animals and are incredibly shy, there’s no way we could have ever seen a Kiwi in Kiwi land! Luckily the eco-reserve has created an environment that allows the Kiwis to hang out in the dark, and as long as we step lightly and whisper and can watch our step in the darkness – we get to see and hang out with Kiwis! 🙂
Lake Mahinapua at Shanghai Bay:
While driving, every few hundred meters we’d notice detours to scenic reserves or view points. While you can’t obviously stop at every one of them…coz there are probably a million creeks, lakes, forests and reserves just on the west coast itself, we did venture into a few. This one was my FAVORITE. About a kilometer off the highway, through lush green bushes and ferns and wild trees arching above, the road opened up to a pristine lake.
Not a soul in sight, the entire lake was ours to explore.
We just sat there soaking in the serenity and peace.. a white swan made an appearance while we were skipping stones making them bounce off the water surface… it was all so unreal!
Back on our journey, we headed south toward Hokitika Gorge – the bluest waters you’ll ever see! Melting glaciers make up all of the thousands of waterfalls along the west coast from Hokitika down to Queenstown; the water that flows through all of these are the most turquoise blue you’ll ever see!
Franz Josef Glacier
This was the highlight of Day 3 – Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are unique relics of the last ice age. Mighty rivers of solid white, tumbling down ice-hewn rock valleys, they are classically beautiful in the glacial sense. Nowhere else in the world have glaciers advanced so close to the sea at this latitude.
Since the glaciers have receded significantly over the years and aren’t really accessible except by helicopters, we decided to do the hike up to the terminal face of the Franz Josef glacier – about a 6kms return. We walked past some 30 waterfalls through the hike.. spell bound by the magnificence of what surrounded us.
After the hike up and back, we immersed ourselves for a couple hours in the Glacier Hot Pools at the base of the glacier… I wish they’d serve alcohol here 🙂
Feeling incredibly relaxed and super hungry, we drove down to Lake Matheson Cafe in Fox Glacier for dinner. The cafe is at the trail head of Lake Matheson with stunning views of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Aoraki Mount Cook ! While we devoured a fantastic prosciutto pizza.. we could not take our eyes off the view in front of us as the sun slowly set over the vast ice capped ranges. I’d however recommend getting brunch here as I can only imagine how phenomenal the views are in broad day light!
We concluded the rather adventurous day driving in pitch darkness for an hour to Karangarua where we spent the night in a mobile home via airbnb… right on the beach!! My first experience ever, in possibly the most remote village of the west, we heard the sounds of wild waves crashing against the coast all night!
Back on the road, making our way down to Wanaka, we stopped multiple times – there were just so many water falls and creeks to stop by..
One of these was the Fantail Falls. I couldn’t capture the picture of the falls itself due to the angle of the sun… but the gushing falls seemed almost violent in its volume and intensity! We chilled by the ice blue stream for a while… taking it all in!
Haast Blue Pools:
Next, we made a pit stop at the Haast Blue Pools. A short 30 min hike to the swing bridge down to the river itself. We took off our shoes and waded into the glacier chill turquoise blue water! It started to rain a little and everything looked misty … it felt like a dream to be standing barefeet in the middle of what seemed like the bluest blue and crystal clear river I’ve ever seen in my life!
More creeks and waterfalls:
Like I said, there’s probably a million creeks and waterfalls in the country! We stopped at another on the way and I can’t even remember the name of this one! 🙂
Driving beyond the numerous waterfalls and river scenery, we left the coast and climbed up the Haast river valley to Haast Pass. The road snakes through the Aspiring National Park and you notice the vegetation becomes more sparse as you travel inland toward Wanaka.
Now’s when it starts to go from spectacular to UNREAL! The road down to the south through Lake Hawea, to Wanaka and to Queenstown took our breath away. Spring was in full blossom in South Island and the colors of the trees, flowers, the water and and sky seemed to create a picture perfect postcard!
The lakeside town of Wanaka was not only dreamy in the evening sun, its really lively with an appealing mix of fine living, food and adventure. Our airbnb was right at the heart of the towncenter which is also about a block from the lake itself and has a high concentration of bars, cafes, restaurants and boutique stores!
Day 5: In and around Wanaka
Mt Iron Trail:
Not the easiest, but the quickest and most beautiful way to get an ariel view of the spectacular town of Wanaka was a hike up Mt Iron! It was windy and cloudy/rainy on our way up, which made the hike a little challenging… but once we got to the summit, we were mesmerized! Mount Aspiring ranges flanked across on one side, the lake and the entire town sprawled out under the clouds… my husband and I just sat there soaking in what we couldn’t really believe our eyes were capturing! All it took was about a 1 hr hike up!
Diamond Lake Trail:
We did another hike up to the Diamond Lake and lookout point. The lake is beautiful with perfectly still water, making it a mirror lake.. Its an easy hike up and the views of Mt. Aspiring were spectacular, but personally I was underwhelmed and quickly moved on in the interest of what came next! 🙂
Roy’s Peak Trail:
Another steep hike walking as far up as you can to view the entire range of Mount Aspiring. We started the hike up, but it was cold and windy and I was hungry by now 🙂 So we turned around after short way up to hit the winery! Definitely recommend the trail if you have protein ammo in your backpack 🙂
Known for their fantastic wines made in the region, we had to spend the afternoon exploring the 100 year old vineyard that sits atop a hill by lake Wanaka. Bundled in our beanies and mittens, we sat outdoors and killed a bottle of one of the finest Sauvignon Blanc I’ve ever had!
That night we crashed hard till about midnight! We then got dressed and headed out to the bars that were only a block away! Shooting stars dropping like wild fire over the lake, the streets were filled with young locals, live music playing at several places… we got to have our Speight’s beer again and were even served fries at 1am!
Next morning, we grabbed coffee at Wanaka and made our way toward Queenstown. There’s just so much to do in and around Queenstown, we decided to spend 4 days here.
The drive down from Wanaka takes you past snow laden roads and ice capped ranges through the Cardrona valley. We spent some time to play in the pristine glistening snow of the Apline Ski resort in the Cardrona valley. I also donated a bra to the breast cancer foundation at the (in)famous Bra fence famously called Bradrona ! 🙂
A cozy old mining town is a quick detour on the way to Queenstown. We stopped here to take a stroll down the streets, picked up a bunch of gifts from Patagonia, New Zealand’s premier chocolate makers before we were back on the road. The Arrow river that passes through the town has these stunning wild purple and pink buds all around – I don’t know what they’re called but they were so pretty and were everywhere, even showing up on mountain ranges!
Gibbston Valley Vineyards:
Driving toward Queenstown we encountered river Kawarua – so deep a turquoise I couldn’t believe it. So we followed the river instead and discovered a whole valley dedicated to vinyards called the Gibbston Valley! So naturally we parked our cars there, rented out mountain bikes and decided to bike along the river, past multiple wineries for almost half a day! We stopped by each vineyard, did some wine tastings and moved on to the next one. We even picked up a bottle of their finest 2014 Pinot Noir… to bring back home!
Not the easiest ride for me, but just riding past the river and the buzz from the wine made the whole experience surreal!
And finally we were on our way into Queenstown. We checked into an airbnb in the Alpine Village right across from “The Remarkables” mountain ranges over Lake Wakatipu… best location to stay being close enough to the town center with a remarkable view of The Remarkables! 🙂
We had to pop open the bottle of Pinot we’d picked up while biking through the Peregrine Vineyard !
The alpine resort of Queenstown is exciting, sophisticated and fantastically scenic. It’s not only the place to source almost any kind of adventure, including bungy, jet boating, horse trekking, rafting and river surfing, it’s also a destination for luxury experiences – gourmet food and wine, spa, shopping etc.
Skyline Gondola and Dinner:
I’d made dinner reservations at the Skyline Bar and restaurant weeks in advance.. the whole experience takes you on a Gondola ride up to the clouds and a 5 course dinner at the hill top all-glass restaurant with panaromic views of the sun setting over Queenstown and the multitude of mountain ranges that surround Lake Wakatipu.
A 12 hour day! One of the most memorable experiences!
We booked the Milford Sound tour through Jucy that took us all the way past Lake Wakatipu, through Te Anau and into Fiorland. We made multiple stops taking in the fairy tale land of Middle-earth!
Mirror LakesThis was one of the spots I was anticipating coming to the most! The water so still you can see the ice capped reflection in the lake! This picture was captured on my humble old Iphone 5!
Described by Rudyard Kipling as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, Milford Sound was carved by glaciers during the ice ages. The fiord’s cliffs that rise vertically from the dark waters, mountain peaks scrape the sky and waterfalls cascade downwards, some as high as 1000 metres are some of the most photographed scenes of New Zealand captured in LOTR. When it rains in Milford Sound as it did when we were there, and it often does, those waterfalls multiply with magnificent effect. Here’s just one of the many we saw over the 2 hour cruise!
My husband, I and an adventurous few others made our way to the front of the boat in the freezing rain as the boat navigated through the roughest waters of the Tasman sea, heading straight toward and under the intense almost-violent glacier melt waterfall! Completely soaked, we stayed freezing for the remaining 5 hours of our journey back… we can still relive the moment we felt ALIVE! An unforgettable experience, reminding us how small we are compared to the forces that define the world we live in! On the bus ride back, we passed by several working farms – and I actually got to take a picture of one filled with venisons on my iphone5!
Day 8: Queenstown
Back in Queenstown we spent a leisurely day drinking my favorite Monteith’s Black beer by Lake Wakatipu!
Drive to Glenorchy:
Glenorchy is nestled on the northern shores of Lake Wakatipu & is the gateway to hiking trails and Middle-earth magic. Where a lot of the scenes of LOTR and The Hobbit were shot, the 40 min drive to Glenorchy and Paradise is one of the most scenic we’ve experienced through New Zealand!We made several pitstops just because we HAD to! Even though we’d spent the last 7 days exploring through the most scenic parts of New Zealand, the view we witnessed along the drive to Glenorchy were scenic on a different level!
A stop at William’s Bay for a quick shot on the way:
A few miles along the mountain ranges becoming more visible as we climbed up to Glenorchy.
This rustic town is a true outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Set against a background of native beech forest and towering mountain ranges, Glenorchy’s surroundings are nothing short of awe-inspiring. The water in Lake Wakatipu seemed to magically turn from a deep turquoise to a mediterranean green.
Endless hiking trails, spectacular landscapes…
By this time, we were convinced we want to move to Wanaka or Queenstown! We even discussed renting out our place, looking for jobs and all kinds of funny things.. there’s so much to talk and dream about when you’re in paradise! 🙂 New Zealand truly is Paradise. Aside from the mesmerizing landscapes that is any photographer, hiker, traveller, really anyone’s dream, the people were the warmest I’ve met anywhere in the world. The number of hikes and places to escape to surpass any place else I’ve heard about. The food is fantastic. The wine is exquisite. The air is pure. The vibe is welcoming.There’s so much love and beauty in a country so fascinating as New Zealand! Thank you New Zealand! Hope to see you soon, hopefully for a lot longer !
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