Exploring the South Island of New Zealand (Part 1)
We always try to set aside time for travel in the spring. We’ll often alternate between traveling abroad and traveling the US. And this year we decided to cash in airline miles and go to New Zealand. This blog post will highlight some of our time exploring the South Island of New Zealand. We knew we only had two weeks there, so we needed to be organized. And that means having a plan that would get us around the country and see as much as possible.
We decided to work with a travel company to arrange a Euro van and some small group activities in order to make the most of our time in New Zealand. The one thing we knew we wanted to do was travel via Euro van to see the South Island and north. We’ve rented RVs twice in the US and this is the best way to explore all that New Zealand has offer.
Long Long Plane Ride
We flew out of Philadelphia, transferred in LA, changed to Quantas Airlines in Brisbane and then finally Christchurch, NZ. And thanks to a 17-hour day time difference and the international date line, 2 days later arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand.
On February 14, 2016 at 1:13 PM an earthquake registering 5.7 on the Richter scale hit Christchurch and many other parts of New Zealand. It caused buildings to collapse, power outages, rock falls and sinkholes. There is still evidence of this earthquake in town. This is on heels of a large earthquake that hit in 2011. It’s interesting to watch a city such as that reemerging. We didn’t spend much time in Christchurch, as we really wanted to get out to “Middle Earth“.
We did however go out to dinner and to the grocery store there. This is our first eye-opening experience with how expensive things were going to be. We spent $120 at the grocery store and the only meal we had was spaghetti. We’re talking a box of noodles and jar of sauce!! A 24 pack of water cost $10.99 as compared to $2.99 here in Philly. We knew we were going to really need to keep our eyes on what we were spending. We knew gasoline was going to be the most expensive cost even with the currency exchange in our favor.
With full bellies and being tired from the long trip we turned in early at the Camp Amber Kiwi Holiday Park. We had already booked holiday parks along the way of our whole trip. See our previous blog post to learn more about the holiday parks and other places to stay.
The next morning we got up early and set out for next destination: Camp Glentaner at Mount Cook. This was about a 5 hour drive from Christchurch. Along the way we took time to hike around Lake Tekao and have a lunch break in the camper van. We couldn’t believe how beautiful and blue the water was. We later learned this has to do with the glaciers creating rock flour (finely powdered rock formed by glacial or other erosion).
The entire drive to Mount Cook was amazing. There was never a direction one could turn and not see beautiful scenes filled with greenery, mountains in the background and of course a ton of sheep. And the campground at Glentanner was great. We got there just before sunset and walked down the path to the lake where we watched the sun setting over Mount Cook. It was so peaceful. Later that night we did a great stargazing tour at Mount Cook. It is a dark sky preserve and I have never seen so many stars. It was amazing to see the Southern Cross and of course the Milky Way and the constellation LEO completely upside down.
We woke up the next morning to a gorgeous sunrise. Even though we were extremely tired we knew we had to get out of the van and make our way down to the lake. And It was definitely worth it. It was so quiet and just the two of us. This was the perfect way to begin our day before heading up to Mount Cook. There we were doing a 3 hour trek up the Hooker Valley trail ending at a glacier lake. Every step of the view was magnificent. We crossed over 4 swing bridges before coming to the lake. We just sat down there taking in the sights, eating snacks, and taking lots of photos and video.
On the way back we walked with a couple we had met the night before at the stargazing tour. They are both doctors from Great Britain and are working in Auckland for a year. Their year was coming to an and so they were exploring the South Island. We also ran into Ricardo, a young man we had met the day before at Lake TeKapo. He is from Mexico but he too is working in Auckland and was exploring all that New Zealand has to offer. We tried to meet up with each of them at other points of our trip but it was too hard to coordinate schedules.
One of our favorite things about traveling is meeting people along the way and keeping in contact. That’s how we can learn about other people and cultures and see how much we have in common versus how different we are. We also felt that way about meeting other Americans. Even if we don’t share the same political views about what is going on in DC we had one thing in common, we were all excited to be traveling around this beautiful country,
Talk about an adorable town situated right on Lake Wakatipu and framed by 360° vistas of snow-capped mountains. We stayed at the Creeksyde campsite and it was fantastic. It was also great to have a home base for the next couple of days. The holiday park was in such a great location. It was just an easy five minute walk into the center of town. And the town was so adorable. The first night we just walked all around and had fantastic silver trumpet fish and chips from Finz right on the water.
The next day we took a gondola ride 1,475 feet above Queenstown to Bob’s Peak to enjoy the views of the town, lake and surrounding mountains. We did a couple super fun luge rides -which is a short, raised toboggan for one person. Think go-carts going down a track but its on a luge!! OMG!!! I just laughed and laughed!!
We walked around the Queenstown gardens, shops, and went to a craft fair to see local artists work and check our email and Facebook (there are Free WiFi Zones all over- they are like phone booths). Queenstown was such a easy place to get around and everyone was so friendly. There are a ton of young people there, mostly in their 20’s from all over the world. We met several Germans and folks from the Netherlands and lots of people traveling alone or with just a friend (a lot of young women) – Pretty cool.
The next morning we were picked up by Jenny from for our half-day Nomad Safaris Lord of the Rings tour. We are huge Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fans and fell in love with the scenery. This is what made us choose New Zealand over Australia when we decided we are going to cash in our air miles. We also love doing small group activities and having “shared experiences”. Because it gives us a chance to meet other folks to learn about the area. And we knew we didn’t know exactly were all the LOTR filming was done. Jenny was an excellent tour guide and we only had one other person with us.
We rode around all day from Queenstown to Glenorchy and the Paradise Valley. We stopped at the Remarkable’s and talk about what was filmed there. The tour included filming location for Isengard, the Ithilen Camp, the Lothlorien Forest, and many more locations. We got to dress up in real authentic replica props and had tea and cookies in the Forest of Lothlorien. That was definitely one of my favorite spots. I love rain forests covered in dense moss and lots of greens. This is also a spot that Al could get some awesome drone footage.
The tour was really cool because we got to hear a lot of personal stories of what it was like when they were filming. I love getting any chance to talk to locals. We also were able to ask a lot of questions about what life is like living in New Zealand and how people deal with the expenses. Jenny said it was extremely expensive and she works 3 jobs just to be able to live in Queenstown (AND she rents out 2 of the bedrooms in her house!!).
Upon leaving Queenstown we drove 2 ½ hours hours to Te Anau. And just like all the views in New Zealand, this drive was beautiful as well. We saw winding roads, green rolling hills, and lots and lots of sheep. Te Anau is a small town that during the height of tourist season I can imagine is very busy. We checked into the Te Anau Top 10 Holiday Park and walked all around Lake Manapouri. It had huge trees and even found a zip-line to play on.
It’s perfect that we were able to go on this trip during the “colder season” (October-April). We really had very small crowds even at the most popular attractions. We spent the evening relaxing in the camper van (we had an early morning tour to Milford Sounds that would be all day) and cooking in the community kitchen. Cooking in the community kitchens were some of my favorite experiences of the trip. We’re able to talk to so many different people AND save money by not eating out all the time! See our previous blog post for more details.
We hope you have enjoyed the first blog posts with details of our New Zealand itinerary. Stay tuned for the second installment of our South Island of New Zealand adventure, which will start at Milford Sound.