Where to start….there is a LOT to say about beautiful New Zealand!! We will say – in case you haven’t read our “superlatives” post – that we rank New Zealand (especially the south island) as the most beautiful overall country of the trip!! You’ll see why!!
So what was our strategy?? How could we make sure we saw the MOST? From everything we had researched and heard from others, we knew we would want to spend more time on the south island than the north and less time in cities than in small, mountainous villages. So all-in-all, less focus on cities, more focus on activities and “must visit” spots. The longest we stayed anywhere was 3 nights – most places, we stayed only a night. So how did we choose where we went? Truly, you could spend two months in NZ and still not “do it all.” We spent 11 nights on the south island and 7 on the north island and there was not one place we ever said that we had “too much” time there…so how to choose?
We did a LOT of research on NZ and looked into many recommendations from wonderful friends and family…started picking the things we knew we wanted to do (example: an overnight cruise through Doubtful Sound) and figured out the transportation in and out (into Christchurch, driving our way to Queenstown, flying from Queenstown to Wellington to save time and then flying home from Auckland!). We picked our must do things after research and then found other beautiful or well-known things along the way that we could tack on as bonuses. We could have done a million more things but we really loved our time on both islands for vastly different reasons.
Arthur’s Pass & Our First Drive In
After a very quick stop into Christchurch, we started our first drive towards Arthur’s Pass! Knowing we’d want to see the beauty of the island and do some hikes rather quickly after our arrival, this was our logical first jump! After getting out of the city of Christchurch, the (two-lane) road opened up in front of us and we were jaw-droppingly excited to see the views for miles and miles and miles. One of the most beautiful drives we have done on the entire trip, it was quite a way to start. Of course, our rental car was rather small and had a *bit* of trouble getting up some of the more intense climbs of the pass but we made it!
Our first day, we decided to take a 3 hour hike through the pass, stopping to see the waterfalls and wildlife. It couldn’t have been a more perfect introduction to New Zealand. Normally we see moss growing on rocks, low down on the ground – here, the moss grew from the groundcover all the way to the tops of the trees. It was like someone had spray painted a beautiful green moss all over everything – we couldn’t capture the density of color with pictures! The forest itself was cool but damp and had lots of cover – particularly helpful when it started raining on us!
Almost effortlessly topped our “most beautiful places” of the trip list. This place doesn’t look real. It is the most crystal, alpine blue waters you’ve ever seen. Not only beautiful waters (more on that in a minute!) but they are surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps and the lake is framed by seemingly endless fields of wild Russell Lupin flowers. We stayed here for 3 nights (our “longest” stay in New Zealand in 2.5 weeks) and every single time we caught a glimpse of this lake, it was breathtaking. The pictures can’t even capture its beauty. Now why is this water so blue, you ask!? No, it’s not an Instagram filter – it ACTUALLY IS this blue. It’s from something called “rock flour” – a glacial flour that is made when glaciers move down the mountainsides, grinding rocks. The rock flour is carried to the lake where it floats at the top and gives off this beautiful turquoise color.
Just in case Tekapo wasn’t cool enough just with the lake, it is one of the only places in the world in what’s called a “Dark Sky Reserve” – and it is the LARGEST dark sky reserve in the WORLD. So what is this? It’s a specifically designated area that is notably free of light pollution and as the name gives away, one of the darkest places in the world. And BOY was the stargazing proof of that. Though we didn’t have clear skies every night we were there, we had them often enough to be awestruck by the seemingly endless stars. If you’re into stargazing, please, please, please visit this beautiful place.
Lake Wanaka and “That Willow Tree”
The “lone willow tree” is probably something most of us have seen in pictures but not known where it was. Well, I was determined to see it in person because well…see below. It’s beautiful. A solo willow tree that is seemingly growing out of the middle of the huge Lake Wanaka, it is majestic with the snow capped peaks behind it.
Unfortunately, all. Of. The. Other. Tourists. Know this too. So it was almost stupid crowded. Looks peaceful from this angle though, right? In person, it ended up being much smaller than we expected but still beautiful! Also this town – Wanaka – was one of our favorite ski towns we stopped through. The perfect balance of good food and drink, activities, stunning scenery in every direction and access to hikes.
Mt. Cook & The Hooker Valley Hike
We (especially Nick) love to hike. We love outdoor adventures. We love exploration. We were on the south island of New Zealand, surrounded for over a week by the “Southern Alps” and we knew that being close enough, we would have to venture towards the tallest peak in New Zealand – Mt. Cook. Only an hour’s drive from our overnight spot, the drive in towards Mt. Cook was just as beautiful as we had hoped – alpine blue waters on either side of the drive, gorgeous greenery stretching for miles and the snow capped peaks looming ahead of us. It couldn’t have been a more gorgeous weather day!
And then we got to the hike.
It was approximately a 3 hour roundtrip hike through Hooker Valley which is at the base of Mt. Cook. When we started the hike, it was warm and breezy. Halfway through the hike (see below) we were FREEZING, it was blowing rain at us sideways and it was so windy, we literally didn’t know if we would make it across these terrifying swinging bridges. Talk about a dramatic weather change. We bundled up as best we could and trekked as quickly as we could. Of course, due to these ever-changing weather conditions, by the time we reached what should have been an awe-inspiring lookout spot, Mt. Cook had hidden itself behind a thick layer of clouds and rain. The hike definitely goes onto our “top windiest experiences of the trip” list.
Milford Sound v. Doubtful Sound
Where to begin on this comparison…so for those that have been to NZ or at least looked into it, you have probably heard of Milford Sound. It’s actually a fiord, but I digress.
Part of Fiordland National Park – known for its glacier carved fiords – these places were surreal, to say the very least. Milford is the one everyone knows about and the easier one to get to – because of that, there are lots of cruise options and consequently, lots more people. Doubtful Sound on the other hand, really only has one way to truly experience it – one company that runs an overnight cruise through the sound. We got this recommendation from my aunt and uncle and it was one of the highlights of New Zealand. Just to GET to Doubtful Sound, you have to take a 45 minute shorter boat ride, a 45 minute bus ride up and over the Wilmot Pass and then another overnight cruise through the sound itself.
This was one of the most special things we did on the trip. It was as if we had the entire sound to ourselves for the night. No one else was there. We had all afternoon to watch the wildlife – New Zealand fur seals, Fiordland crested penguins and many other beautiful birds. Nick took the opportunity in the afternoon to go kayaking through the fiord and then obviously took the chance to jump in polar-bear-plunge style to the freezing (8-10 degrees celcius) waters. Brr! We were treated to delicious meals all evening (and the following morning) and we got to marvel at the majesty of this essentially untouched natural wonder. Once the sun came up the next morning, the ship crew gave us a real treat – they called it “the sound of silence.” The turned off literally all the engines and all the lights and we were all kindly asked to remain still and quiet from wherever we wanted to observe…we got to truly enjoy and appreciate everything about this incredible place. The sounds of birds in the trees. The waterfalls from all directions. What a wonderful way to celebrate New Zealand and a good reminder to slow down and just listen to nature once in a while.
Below – Milford Sound is 1st, Doubtful Sound is 2nd!
Places we Hopped Through: Christchurch, Queenstown, Te Anau
Each of these towns had their own unique charms and some of our favorite foods of the New Zealand time but were honestly just used as jumping off points for activities!
We knew we had to drive. Had to. Didn’t want to rely on 1) public transportation, 2) an expensive tour company or 3) expensive and time-consuming flights jumping around the country. We had one rental car for the south island and one for the north. Some of the “hills” we took through mountain passes really put these cars to the test but we safely made our way around! Particularly on the south island, anything we wanted to do required a drive. And not a 25 minute drive. This was part of the reason we didn’t stay in one place longer than a night or two – we had to strategize using the only road options (usually literally only one way to get from point A to point B) available and either park ourselves near good day trips or plan to stop at the activities on our way from one city to the next. While this worked well for what we wanted to do and see, it was also understandably exhausting! The drives were always beautiful and felt like an activity in and of themselves – we were always stopping at the lookout spots to either take photos or just stare at all the beauty surrounding us.
We made sure to keep a PARTICULAR watch for interesting wildlife for Nick’s mom, Sara. And New Zealand didn’t disappoint – they have unique wildlife everywhere. We saw all kinds of birds – including the kea (see below!) which is widely considered one of the smartest birds in the world. We saw fur seals, we saw horses, we saw a LOT of cows. Mostly we could not believe how many SHEEP there are in New Zealand. Especially when we first started our drive, we kept saying “sheep!!” as we looked out the window because they’re everywhere!! Fun fact: there are 10 sheep for every one person in New Zealand!! No wonder Merino wool is such a thing there. There is a seemingly endless supply of wool!
By the time we got to the north island, we had 7 nights of this trip left. Seven nights of an EIGHT MONTH TRIP. You guys – we’re tired. Yes, boo hoo, tired from an 8 month trip, we know, we know. But we are finally “done” with moving around so much. Packing and re-packing every few days. 31 flights. Almost 60 places to rest our heads. It has finally caught up to us. So we decided to take it pretty easy on the north island. Maybe one activity a day!
What’s different from the South Island?
A LOT. We had heard from others that we’d want to spend more time on the south island – that it was more “wild.” We didn’t expect to…not really like the north island so much. Yes, tons of beautiful places to go and things to see and do but the differences in just about everything from one island to the next were obvious. The north island felt much more “local” but not necessarily in a good way. Yes, it was annoying sometimes on the south island to feel like we were existing in tourist towns…but there is a reason so many tourists go to the south island. The beauty is hyper concentrated there.
The north island seems to be where most people live – rather than driving through adorable mountain, ski towns like we did on the south island, we were driving through what could have been small-town America with its industrial sectors, local hardware stores and farms. The islands just LOOK different. The north island has much more focus on the logging industry and has swaths of dark green trees as far as the eye can see. Yes, there are hills and greenery and some wildlife. But it doesn’t feel special like the south island did. The south island feels like a different planet. The north island is just a beautiful countryside you could find many places worldwide. This is, of course, not to say we didn’t enjoy our time on the north island but it just didn’t feel like it had the same wow factor as the south island.
Hawkes Bay & Winery Bike Ride
What we DID enjoy on the north island (and New Zealand in general, to be honest) was the wine scene. Since getting to Australia, we have been wow-ed by the wines of these two countries – and are concerned about our spoiled pallets when we get home!
Our first full day on the island, we rented two bikes and took our time on a leisurely bike ride to and from about 5 different wineries. We had spectacular weather, delicious wine, really tasty food and a relaxing day! We did relatively minimal damage and are only coming home with 5 bottles! 🙂
Rotorua – the Redwoods and the thermal pools
Rotorua as a city was (understatement) not really our favorite city BUT it had a full kitchen to cook Thanksgiving dinner and had a few cool sites nearby. We first stopped through the Waiheke Thermal Pools and were pleasantly surprised to have them almost all to ourselves. “Busy season” in New Zealand doesn’t really start until Christmas when early summer hits so a lot of the things we did weren’t packed which was great. At these thermal pools – very popular on the north island – everything is heated by these incredible geothermal springs that are pumping out VERY hot water. They channel them into different pools that vary in temperature from warm bath water to hot tub. There were no kids, it was set between lush, green hills and had beautiful views from every pool. Not a bad way to relax for the day.
Once we got to Rotorua, we had heard about and knew we wanted to visit the Redwoods. Many of us have seen redwoods in California – and to be fair, the California redwoods are much older and larger than the ones in New Zealand – but neither of us had ever been on an elevated walk among the trees. This was special. We bought a ticket that let us go both in the evening when the lights were on and the next morning when we could see outside. Both times we enjoyed the walk and for very different reasons. This is a 700 meter walkway that includes 28 suspension bridges through the forest. It lets you get up close and personal with these monster trees without damaging them.
We were very sad to miss Thanksgiving with our families back home but were determined to make the holiday happen for Team Reindeer. And boy did we prepare a feast for 2! We had a roasted turkey breast, homemade stuffing (Nick’s favorite!), cranberry sauce, loaded cheesy mashed potatoes, garlic green beans, roasted asparagus and carrots and pecan cheesecake for dessert. We were full for two days!!
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
The glowworms!!! There are a few of these caves dotted through New Zealand but Waitomo is one of the ones people rave about. Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to take pictures IN the caves (sorry friends, we wanted to!!) because it’ll damage the space and potentially harm the glowworms but while we were annoyed we couldn’t capture it, it really did allow us to marvel at what we were seeing. Hidden underground above a river flowing through the limestone caves, there are hundreds of thousands of glowworms. Doesn’t matter if it’s daytime or nighttime – always dark down there! – you look up and it’s like you’re looking at the night sky. Bright, shimmering, glowing blue dots. Why do they glow? To attract their food, of course! They use the lights to attract insects towards them and then use long, spider-web type strings they have left hanging to trap and eat them. We got a quick glimpse of what these strings looked like and they were realllllllll creepy. Imagine lot of single fishing strings hanging down from a ceiling. LOTS of them. Bugs have no chance.
*below picture is not mine, just wanted you to get to see what it was like!!!*
Waiheke Island – the “Island of Wine”
This was our LAST activity of the trip!! We took a leisurely ferry ride from downtown Auckland over to Waiheke Island – also known as the “island of wine.” It has over 30 wineries!! On one tiny island with only 9500 permanent residents!! We wisely chose the ferry + hop on/hop off bus combo and enjoyed winding our way around this beauty island of wine without having to think too much about how to get from stop to stop. As expected, we LOVED the wineries here. How do Australia and New Zealand do wine so much better than most others!? Their climate for one. But suffice it to say, this was the perfect, leisurely way to spend our last full day of an 8 month trip. Cheers!
Places we Stopped Through: Wellington (the capital!), Napier, Taupo, Auckland
These were all just fine as stop throughs but again, just served a functional purpose 🙂
So, guys! We are DONE!! We literally sit in the lounge waiting for our flight HOME as we finish and post this!! We hope you loyal followers have enjoyed our journey, our photos and our stories. We can’t wait to get home and share even more. Thank you to all who have supported and loved us from afar! See you SOON!!