Kia Ora! (or hello) Have you ever been to a place that no matter how much time you spend there it is not enough? New Zealand is that place for me. I have wanted to go back ever since I returned to the United States. Who am I kidding, I never wanted to leave!
When planning a trip to NZ the first thing you need to consider is if you are going to need a visa. If you are planning to stay for three months or less and are from the US or another waiver country you do not need a visa.
The next thing to consider is the length of time you have for your trip. If you are from the East coast USA like me, the flight time is an all day affair (literally… 26 hours). You might consider planning a layover somewhere for a couple days while on your way to NZ. I spent a few days island hopping in Fiji to break up the trip. There are definitely worse places to be.
The amount of time that you should spend in NZ depends on if you are planning to see the North island, South island, or both. I would recommend that if you plan on seeing a good portion of what the South island has to offer then you should plan for about two weeks. The South island is not that large (Japan is the same size as the entirety of NZ for comparison’s sake) but once you get there you will never want to leave. Two weeks may not seem like enough time. If you want to travel a large portion of the North island then you will want to plan on adding another week for your trip.
In this blog I will not be talking about the North island. If beaches are your thing you will definitely want to check it out though. If you would rather spend your time in the mountains like I do then stick to the South island.
The cheapest time of year to take a trip to NZ would be in their Autumn months of March through May. Establishments charge non-peak season prices and temperatures during this time of year range from 55 to 75 degrees F (14-20 degrees C). If you plan to see the lupins (flowers) their peak season is in the Spring which is during late November. If Little Blue Penguins are what you’re after the best time to see them is during their breeding season which is from July through February.
If I were to talk about every beautiful place in NZ this blog would turn into a book. To save your eyes and my sanity I am going to talk about my favorite highlights.
My first suggestion would be to fly into Christchurch and take a round trip road excursion from there. New Zealanders drive on the “wrong” side of the car (and road) compared to those of us from the United States. Some of their roads are very narrow and include several single lane bridges so be prepared for this. Renting a car is by far the most efficient way to get around. There are plenty of tour companies that you can book trips with if you are uncomfortable with driving but this can be very expensive in the long run.
It is worth it to spend some time exploring Christchurch as it is a very unique city. The next place you should travel to nearby is Lake Tekapo (weather it is lupin season or not) as it is a beautiful area. Lake Tekapo is part of a UNESCO dark sky reserve which means it is the perfect spot for stargazing. There are several walking tracks and hot springs nearby.
Continue to enjoy the beautiful coastline and don’t forget to stop at the Moeraki Boulders on your way to the Otogo Peninsula, which is a good spot to look for those penguins if it is the right time of year. Pass through Dunedin (my alma mater) and maybe stop at the Cadbury Chocolate Factory. If you are ahead of schedule take a short side trip to tunnel beach, you won’t regret it.
Did I mention sheep yet??? Look out for them while you are driving! Sheep meander down the middle of the roadways and are often a dangerous road hazard. When I first encountered a sheep one of my friends in the back of the car exclaimed, “was that a billboard?!?” Nope, it was a live herd of sheep waddling down the roadway… My friend may have been a bit delirious during our midnight drive back to college, thankfully he wasn’t driving.
The next stop on your tour should be the Catlins Forest Park. I would recommend staying at least two days in this area. My trip to the Catlins was one of my favorite excursions during my stay in NZ even though I got soaked trying to set up our tent in the rain and sadly it collapsed in the middle of the night.
Speaking of getting wet…did someone mention waterfalls??? Matai Falls, Mclean Falls, and Purakaunui Falls are all spectacular places to visit! Don’t worry, I don’t know how to say that last one either. Nugget Point Lighthouse and Kaka Beach shouldn’t be overlooked. I was able to catch the sunrise on the beach and it was amazing! Surat bay is worth a visit as well because you are pretty much guaranteed to see sea lions but remember to stay a safe distance away from them. I watched a man who got too close and was unsurprisingly chased away by a HUGE ANGRY SEA LION. Luckily the man was a bit faster than the sea lion, or it simply got hungry and gave up, we’ll never know. If I were you I wouldn’t test my luck.
Fiordland National Park is a must see area and specifically you shouldn’t miss Milfrod Sound. The national park has stunning fjords, fantastic waterfalls, mirror lakes, and snow capped peaks (what more could you want). This area is home to some of the best hiking (or tramping as they would say) in the world. Whether you are looking for a day hike or a longer excursion the Fiordlands have something for you. I would highly recommend renting a kayak or getting a ticket for the ferry through Milford Sound.
If you want to live out your adrenaline junkie fantasies then Queenstown is the place to be. Prepare yourself for hiking, canyoning, “bungy” jumping, white water rafting, skydiving, mountain biking, and more. Of course I did all of these things (sorry mom) and skydiving was and still is my favorite. I saw a view of NZ that few ever personally see and had a rush like you wouldn’t believe (unless you’re a skydiver, then you’re getting what I’m laying down). Unfortunately, Queenstown is a huge tourist trap and the less time you spend there the better off your wallet will be.
After coming down from your adrenaline rush the next place you could visit is Wanaka and the nearby lake with the same name. If you have seen the famous Wanaka tree photo this could be your chance to try your hand at recreating it. Wanaka offers some of the same adventure attractions as Queenstown as well as skiing in the winter (June through August) but Mount Aspiring National Park is also nearby. The park contains hundreds of glaciers, lush forests, braided rivers, magnificent mountain peaks, and alpine meadows and is not to be missed (that’s an order).
When it comes to exploring a glacier you should choose between the Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers. I opted to visit Fox Glacier because it was slightly less expensive, however it should be noted that visitors to Franz Josef Glacier get complimentary access to the hot pools which are fed with water from the glacier.
If you still have enough time left on your trip you may want to travel through Arthur’s Pass on your way back to Christchurch. There is hiking there but you can experience a lot of the scenery during the drive itself. Temperatures in this area will probably be significantly colder than in the other places you have traveled during the rest of your trip.
Side trips not included on the map:
Mt. Cook National Park – If you have a chance to fit this into your schedule you should! Yes, you guessed it, more hiking. It contains ABSOLUTELY beautiful scenery. The roads themselves are even beautiful, who knew that was a thing.
Punakaiki or the “pancake rocks” – I have never seen any place like this before. You will have to see it to believe it.
Abel Tasman National Park – Contains the stunning “coastal track” and is home to NZ’s fur seal colonies.
Kaikoura – If you have not seen any whales during your trip thus far you should definitely take a whale watching tour here.
Fish and chips – Make sure you grab a plate of fish and chips from a street-side vendor anywhere, you can’t miss them. It is one of the best meals you will have while traveling abroad.
Accommodation – There are tons of options for lodging now as AirBnBs are becoming more popular in NZ. If you are traveling on a budget I would highly recommend getting a membership with the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) as an overseas member for only $25 a year. Don’t let the name deceive you; any age can apply for this membership. I know that there is a certain stigma about hostels, ever since that terrible movie came out, but trust me this is your best bet. A one night stay is around $30 and you get access to a kitchen and other necessities. Hostels are pretty much everywhere including in the national parks.
I can’t wait to go back to New Zealand myself, it is one of my most favorite places on Earth. If you are planning a trip let me ride in your suitcase please, or at least tell me about what a great time you had when you get back…
P.S. – Watch out for the mischievous Kea… you have been warned…
Mai tere oaoa! (Safe Travels)