Itinerary & Recommendations
South Island: Christchurch – Mount Potts & Mount Sunday – Geraldine – Lake Tekapo & Lake Pukaki – Glenorchy – Te Anau & Milford Sound – Wanaka & Mount Iron & Diamond Lake – Franz Josef Glacier – Hoikitika – Punakaiki – Cape Foulwind – Abel Tasman National Park – Picton
North Island: Wellington – Flying Fox / Whanganui National Park – Lake Taupo – Rotorua – Auckland – Whangarei Kamo & Mount Audrey – Auckland
If we were to do this part of the trip again, we would skip the North Island completely and fly or take a bus from Picton/Christchurch to Auckland (not only would that save us a few days of a lot of driving for less impressive landscapes, but the ferry from Picton to Wellington is surprisingly expensive!).
Useful free apps to get around NZ even if you don’t have wifi include MapMe (offline GPS), Campermate, Camping NZ. There are also some useful offline apps that provide information about places, history, and activities.
The website BookMe offers significant discounts on almost all tourist activities.
Wifi tends to be available in hotels and campsites, sometimes for a fee. However, every town has a library and they all have open wifi, so you can park out front or go inside and check emails or post photos to social media to make everyone jealous of what you’re up to!
Our few weeks in New Zealand (NZ) absolutely flew by. Each day we were driving an average of 3-4 hours, doing at least an hour of walking, and gaping at one landscape more stunning than the other. We once again rented a campervan, except this time it was for two people and distinctly “cozier” than the last one we traveled in. No standing room, no real fridge (just a cooler that could be plugged in to keep the inside temperature down while we were driving), and no “self-contained” certificate.
It turns out that in NZ, this is a big deal. A certified self-contained vehicle is one that has closed water systems (i.e. water from your sink doesn’t just get dumped out under the van) and is meant to store a certain number of liters of water per person. Some also have a shower/toilet combo but that is not required. Here’s the thing: many campsites are restricted to self-contained vehicles, including most of the Department of Conservation (DOC) ones! Other campsites charge an average of $35 for two people per night.
Needless to say, our budget got obliterated.
On the bright side, it was worth every penny.
Our first lucky stop was at Mount Potts, where we ended up because we refused to pay $250 for a Rohan Tour (yes, that’s a Lord of the Rings – LOTR for short – reference). We drove ourselves to the location and stayed at the brilliant Mount Potts Lodge where we met the very cool managers Abby and Cav. The next day we did two hikes: one near the lodge, which gave us breathtaking views further glorified by the overnight snowfall that coated the mountaintops all around us, and one up Mount Sunday which is where Edoras used to stand (that’s another LOTR ref).
As an avid horse-rider, I had come across and been recommended Dart Stables more than once, so using my “it’s my birthday” card (yay Scorpios!), we drove through Queenstown and up to Glenorchy for me to go on a three-hour ride. We stayed at the wonderful Miss Woolly’s Campground, and the horseback ride was incredible. We crossed rivers and cantered around while trying to take in endless LOTR-esque views. I could have kept going for days, literally – it turns out another stable, High Country Horses, offers 2-5 day horseback tours with camping! Had I known…
We spent two nights in Te Anau, which gave us time to go to the movies to see local documentary “Ata Whenua – Shadowland”, a mesmerizing 40-minute film shot from planes and helicopters flying over the Fiordland throughout the seasons. We also drove up to Milford Sound to do a cruise – it was rainy and grey when we started out but we found out that “rain is just liquid sunshine” and the rainfall produced hundreds of waterfalls (the nature guide said there could be up to 18 000!). We even saw seals and a couple of rare orange-eyebrowed penguins!
Snaking our way North, we spent 24h in pretty Wanaka, hiking Mount Iron and doing the Diamond Lake trek before continuing on to the famous West Coast of the South Island.
Our first stop on the West Coast – other than the first parking we found by the side of the road which allowed us to take our shoes off and run against the mighty wind into the numbingly cold ocean (we stopped ankle-deep!) – was the Franz Josef Glacier. We met with two friends of Francois who were biking around the island, going on a free glow-worm night walk, hiking for a few hours around the glacier (which can only be seen from far far away unless you pay for a helicopter ride in which case they drop you on it for a short walk), and countering the rain with a visit to the beautiful hot pools ranging from 36C to 40C (the 90min admission fee is ample as no-one checks how long you’ve been there)!
After the best fish and chips at Porky’s in Hoikitika, we went to say hello to the seal colony at Cape Foulwind and hiked around to the lighthouse – a short 1h walk along cliffs and with views of beaches and the ocean – before heading to the Abel Tasman National Park. The glimpse of it we got in the sun was stunning, but unfortunately the rest of our short 24h stay was in a downpour (and our car battery died! #classic) so I’ll leave it at that. In retrospect, we would have loved to have 3-5 days to enjoy the Coastal Walk, though that requires booking huts at campsites ahead of time and carrying everything you need with you (food included) as there is nothing along the way but nature. So if you embark on that journey, make sure you research the logistics properly!
Finally, we did some wine tasting at Neudorf Vineyards in Upper Moutere – an incredible area full of vineyards, local trades and artisans, and incalculable charm – on our way to Picton where we hung out with Barry again (remember him, from Tiger Hill Farm and Tasmania?) before getting on the ferry to Wellington.
On the North Island, I will mention just two stops:
- The Flying Fox Retreat in Whanganui National Park, a secluded place that you can access by cablecar only and where you can go and stay comfortably, knowing everything is done sustainably, and
- Rotorua, where we went to OGO to try zorbing! That means getting into a giant plastic ball and rolling down a hill, in hysterics because it is more fun than you could possibly imagine.
That brings us to our last ten days in NZ, spent on an avocado farm and in Auckland (link to that blog coming soon!).
If you have traveled around NZ and have other must-see stops, feel free to share in the comments below!