"To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all." - Oscar Wilde
It was three hours until we put aside all responsibility and boarded a plane to escape to the real middle earth to experience a string of wildly unexpected places, to build a collection of memories we would keep with us a lifetime. They say travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer, and it has rung true for me now, more than ever before. We were oblivious to what was before us and with heads filled with little expectation, a suitcase spilling with items that were hardly thought about, and an itinerary that was barley existent, we boarded a plane and from the moment we landed this trip had the power to change my entire mindset about travel and life. I was determined that when I got home, though home would remain the same, that I wouldn't. Who would have thought that not engaging in international roaming, and forgetting to bring my camera charger would have had such a positive influence on the way that I travelled this time around.
You can immerse yourself into the beauty of a part of the world through photographs, imagining what it would be like to experience the place first hand. This trip though, was beyond foreign for me, for not only had I not visited New Zealand before, I hadn't had the time to delve into extensive research of the place I was visiting like I would usually do. I was going into it blind folded, unaware if I would be caught in the middle of torrential rain, or feel the wetness of snow flakes on my forehead. If I would be trekking up to the snow capped mountain tops, jumping out of a plane, sunbathing or road tripping through roads carved into the mountains edge. It was only two days into the trip that my camera battery died and although I did find a camera shop in our second stop on the road in Wanaka, for some reason I chose not to re-charge it. The thought of experiencing the view and the moments through my own eyes, rather than a lens somehow seemed refreshing. I felt lighter. There was no expectation to capture what was before me. However it wasn't long before I settled on capturing the views through my iPhone, after all, it was one of the most beautiful landscapes I had laid eyes on and not to share it with others who had not yet visited, seemed insane.
All the photos I took on this trip were captured on my iPhone 7 Plus, which I got moments before leaving for the trip. With no wifi being in most of the places we visited and my choice to not engage in international roaming meant that, for the majority of our time away I was forced to be present, something I truly struggle with back home. I had no other option, but to soak up and indulge in each moment. It slowly started to dissolve all feelings of anxiety that I felt often back home, and the small niggles I had previously experienced travelling with Basil were non existent and I couldn't help but notice this correlation. Being disconnected, drenching myself in my new surroundings, noticing the small things and engaging in conversations and laughter with our close friends, and new friends were some of the most enjoyable times.
Our road trip started in Christchurch, and within 75 kilometres we reached the quaint little town of Akaroa, historic for it's French and British settlement nestled in the heart of an ancient volcano. The village is small, and can be explored in a day with it's galleries, patisseries and cafes, however take a boat ride to see the little piece of paradise from the waters edge, and spot dolphins, baby seals and penguins. Don't hope to find a fresh juice in this town, it's all about indulgence, just as the French like it! From Akaroa we drove to Wanaka, stopping for lunch and taking in the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo.
Wanaka is a resort town set on the southern end of its namesake lake with incredible picturesque views of snowcapped mountains. Wanaka is the gateway to the Southern Alps Mount Aspiring National Park, and it's crystal waters, glaciers, forests and alpine lakes are some of it's main attractions. With a night the sky so full of stars, Wanaka is just as stunning when the sun goes down. From Wanaka we drove to Cardrona were we rode quad bikes up some amazingly steep and beautiful mountains.
The drive from Cardrona to Queenstown was unreal, and we had to stop a few times along the way to take in the views. A light drenched Queenstown greeted us as we drove through the town of Arrowtown to reach it, with the most perfect pastel palettes at sunset and dramatic scenery that rapped as far the eye could see. The most enchanting valleys, towering mountains capped with snow in the mornings, spilling with adrenaline filled activities and attractions, and a gorgeous casual town. Queenstown quickly moved to the top of places visited on the South island. It reminded me of Santorini, with a beauty that was impossible to capture on screen. The vibe of the town by daylight is beautiful and relaxed. By night, it's the opposite, and the party goers fill the town.
See my personal recommendations below for where to stay, what to eat, what to bring and where to shop! If you have any other questions about traveling the South Island please comment on this post and I will do my best to answer them for you!
Hire a house, there are plenty of houses listed on Air B&B in Wanaka, to suit couples through to a large group or family. My recommendation is don't stay too far out of town, and use the car as little as possible.
Roys Peak Track: A 5-6 hr return trek. The track winds its way through alpine meadows and at the peak is the most beautiful breathtaking view that makes it all worth while. Pack lunch and take a backpack with plenty of water.
Mountain Biking: Hire a mountain bike in town (for an hour, 3 hours or a full day) and pack a picnic lunch and some water as their isn't anything close once you set off. Take off towards the track left of the Wanaka Lake, it's a beautiful scenic route and will take you past a few of Wanaka's land marks including the Wanaka Tree. Say #thatwanakatree to a photographer and listen for the sigh and laugh, as it's perhaps the most photographed tree in New Zealand and it has a funny story behind why. Read about the story of the tree here. My advice is don't set out to see the tree as a day trip, but riding past it on your hike you will be able to snap a photo of it, because you can't leave Wanaka without a photo of 'that tree'.
All around New Zealand, there is exceptional wine, so that was always my drink of choice. In Wanaka especially though, I had some of the most amazing wines I have ever tasted.
Big Fig: Real, fresh, tasty, modern Middle-Eastern inspired food where what you see if what you get. Think slow cooked lamb, meatballs, spiced chicken and a mix of beautiful seasonal salads, it's perfect for vegetarians or meat lovers. I suggest getting the big plate and doing the Big Fig for a hearty lunch.
Kika: A modern sharing restaurant and bar focussing on quality and seasonal dishes enhanced with produce from their own kitchen garden. If you are with a group, indulge in the 'Just Feed Me' menu, where the chef will select complimentary items on the menu and have them sent out to you. The food is incredible, and definitely worth spoiling yourselves with.
Wanaka Farmers Market: If you are in Wanaka on a Thursday evening, make sure you head down to the local Farmers Markets. You will find everything from handmade chocolates and cakes, to award winning breads and pastries, as well as roasted chestnuts and mulled wine!
Bel Lago Holiday Home: Bel Lago means beautiful lake in Italian and from every single room and deck of this home you can see the beautiful Lake Wakatipu set against Deer Park Heights and The Remarkables mountain range. Only a few minutes drive from the main town, or a beautiful downhill 20minute walk, it was the perfect place to come home to and watch the sun set. Sleeps 8, each room with it's own ensuite.
Ekara House Queenstown: One of Queenstown's prime luxury residences, Ekara House, sits high on Queenstown Hill and is positioned perfectly to take in the breath taking views of Lake Wakatipu. Sleeping 12 people, each room with it's own ensuite and two level living and kitchen areas it is perfect for big group bookings for those wanting to indulge.
For those visiting Queenstown in a much smaller group, or as a couple, my recommendation would be to stay in the town centre, which eliminates any need for a hire car.
Onsen Hot Pools: Queenstown usually done at full pace, with lots of go-go-go adventure, Onsen Hot Pools is a moments calm in a busy day, and allows you to unwind and relax whilst taking in the beautiful surroundings. All hot pools are private, and there are a range of packages you can choose from some which include an indulgent massage back in town after. I recommend doing the pools after you have completed any adrenaline seeking activities, as the hot fresh water is a muscle relaxant and will have you feeling a million dollars after. Go for the fist morning session of the day and take the complimentary shuttle which leaves from Shot Over street (the same street as Ferg Burger), you'll be the first to use the pools and the weather is still mild. Take your camera, as the views are incredible, but remember to lap up every moment as you only have an hour!
Skippers Canyon River Jet: The Shotover jet is the most famous in Queenstown, but we viewed it from the Onsen pools and the surroundings didn't compare to those of the Skippers Canyon Jet. The Skippers Canyon Scenic Tour & Jet trip is a relaxing half day tour combining both the full scenic tour and the jet boat ride full of high-speed thrills. The ride up is an adrenalin rush in itself, as you make your way through sharp turning roads of the side of the cliffs edge with no protective railing, whilst viewing scenes of where Lord of the Rings and car advertisements are often filmed.
The Gondala & Skyline Luge: Take the Gondala up to the top of the mountain and buy some tickets for a thrilling ride on the skyline luge. You take the chairlift to the start of the luge and then ride the downhill track. There is a starters track which is great for kids, and an adult track. Once is never enough, so ensure you get the 3 or 6 ride tickets.
Para Glyding over Queenstown: Once you finish the Luge rides, you have to get down the mountain somehow, so if you're game, instead of taking the gondala back down, para glyde! You jump from right where the Luge ride finishes, and it saves you having to pay for another gondala ride back up another day. Take in the breathtaking views of Queenstown as you glyde through the sky and land in the school below, just streets away from Shotover St. If driving, park near the school before going up the Gondala.
Vudu Cafe: Located right on the lake on Beach Street, Vudu Cafe oozes delicious hearty breakfast options. Try to secure a table outside on the lake before placing your order inside.
Boatshed Bistro: Located on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, the Boatshed is the perfect place to enjoy an early breakfast. Sit outside on the deck, and after breakfast climb down the rocks and dip your feet in the crystal clear icy waters.
Tacomedic: Tacos filled with New Zealand's best produce from land to sea, and located on the same road as Angel Divine boutique. Do some shopping and then stop for some Tacos, and guarantee you'll be back the next day! Be mindful of their opening hours as they aren't open early in the morning or late at night.
Fergburger: A tourist attraction located on Shotover St serving big
Madame Woo: Amazing Chinese and Malaysian street food and perfect for a big lunch. Modern, fun space with a menu full of big flavours. Try to get a seat outside the front of the restaurant so you can people watch. If going in a group, order share style from the menu so that you are able to try everything!
Jervois Steak House: With the most beautiful interiors and delicious food, if you have a group of you try to book their private dining room. The menu is a veritable who’s who of meats in all forms, sourced from the very best beef and lamb producers, but if you aren't a big meat eater there are plenty of options of the menu for you too. Order the bread to start, it comes with the most delicious brown butter you'll ever taste!
For something sweet head to Patagonia and ask for the free wifi code at the counter (one of the only places in town I found to get a good connection), or to Balls & Bangles for a huge range of injected donuts!
Angel Divine: A multi-brand boutique offering International and New Zealand brands, with a beautiful range of clothing, boots, candles and jewels.
PLACES TO VISIT ALONG THE WAY
Cardrona: Fleet across the mountains in a Yamaha 350cc, Quad bike. Fully automatic gearing and 4WD capability means you can ride at any experience level. I had never ridden a Quad before (had only ever been a passenger). The trail is amazing, adventurous and the bikes get you up really high to experience some amazing views! Take your sunnies to protect your eyes, and a windshield jacket to protect clothing. Stop afterwards at the Cardrona Hotel for lunch before setting off on the road again.
Lake Tekapo: Lake Tekapo, with it's turquoise crystal clear waters lies in the heart of the Mackenzie Country, in New Zealand's central South Island. New Zealand's most popular tourist route, State Highway 8, passes through Lake Tekapo and provides exquisite views. Don't give this one a miss, it's truly breathtaking!
Milford Sound: Surrounded by steep cliffs and rainforest, Milford Sound is a sight to see. Recently ranked as the worlds most beautiful places, the Milford Sound is the 8th wonder of the word and a must-do. Take a boat cruise through the sound exploring soaring peaks, incredible mirror lakes and towering waterfalls. Best to plan this one in advance!
Arrowtown: A historic gold mining town in the Otago region of the South Island it is located on the banks of the Arrow River, not far from Queenstown. You'll be enchanted by it's historic and quaint look, and it's a great spot to stop and wonder on your way to Queenstown.
WHAT TO PACK
The weather on the South Island can change in an instant, and there is a chance of you experiencing all four seasons in a 24hour span. Layering is the key to packing and making sure you are prepared. We visited early February, and in Wanaka it was chilly days and chilly nights, then a few days later in Queenstown we were in jeans and t-shirts. As soon as you get anywhere near water it's windy and cold, so even if it seems like it's a hot day it's best to have a jacket with you everywhere you go.
- Jeans - Take all the pairs you own, as they are a staple and can be worn almost everyday. I lived in them!
- Exercise Pants - for Extreme sports, Bike & Quad Ridding, Hiking. Don't wear jeans cycling or biking, you'll need the extra movement.
- A Waterproof, windshield jacket
- Lots of T-shirts
- A pair of Shorts
- Fur or Warm jackets
- 1 Dressy dress
- 1 Pair of Hiking shoes
- 1 Pair of Sneakers
- 1 Pair of Open shoes
- 1 Pair of Heels
- Lots of socks
- A Turkish Towel
- Sunscreen (the sun in NZ is deceiving, and you can get easily burnt without realising it)
- A Hat
- A backpack or day bag
- Camera (and charger and adapters!!!)
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Map out a Journey: As much as it's fun to be spontaneous, and some of the best moments are those not planned, when road tripping around the South Island it's good to have a solid plan. Get a map of the south island and pinpoint exactly where want to visit, book accommodation in these places and then let everything else come organically. Exploring and experiencing the unknown and the region un-planned is most fun.
International Roaming: The internet in New Zealand is slow and expensive, and don’t expect many places to offer free wifi. It's best for GPS and navigation if at least one person with you has international roaming that they can turn on. Alternatively, you can follow the signs, but make sure you pay attention!
Plan Activities: Tours do cost quite a bit, but if you book on the day, or the day before they are discounted to fill numbers. If there is something you really want to do though, book it in advance so you don't miss out.
Book a Car in Advance: If you are booking a car, book one in advance for the exact amount of days you require. Any additional days come at a high fee, and booking it when you get there is a lot more pricey than if you book in advance. The NZ roads are unforgiving, so be safe on the road and invest in insurance just incase!
CHRISTCHURCH - AKAROA - LAKE TEKAPO - WANAKA - CARDRONA - ARROWTOWN - QUEENSTOWN