South Island, New Zealand
Kia Ora! The South Island of New Zealand is a special place. There’s something unique about the peacefulness amongst its majestic mountains and valleys. During the winter months, the island becomes so quiet, that at times you feel like the only ones there. The tourist population declines significantly and you may actually be the only one on the road for quite sometime. The Kiwi people are nothing but friendly, the landscape is magnificent, and the air is crisp. The locals truly care about their environment and Mother Nature. There’s no pollution in the countryside and rarely developed land. New Zealand has something to offer for everyone, but peaks interest for those whole love adventure and the outdoors. The best way to see this island is by camper van. We are not road trip people, but we recommend this trip for everyone! We would suggest spending at least two weeks traveling the South Island, but it is still possible to do in one week. Below is our one week itinerary for the South Island.
Day 1-2 Queenstown
Queenstown is an adventure junkie’s dream come true. This cute ski town is full of outdoor activities. From heli-skiing to bungee jumping, there’s a ton of excitement here. Unless you are planning on a ski or snowboarding trip, most activities are better in the spring or summertime (Sept-Feb). The town has a bunch of unique bars and restaurants to check out. Be sure to stop at the famous Fergburger when visiting. The gourmet burgers are massive, but worth the wait in line!
We only stayed one night in Queenstown, so we could pick up our Maui camper van and hit the road! However, you could easily stay a few days and enjoy all that Queenstown has to offer. We suggest visiting the Queenstown Skyline for exceptional views of the town. They also have a gondola ride and luge at the top!
The first night in New Zealand we stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Queenstown. It was a great location for us and also affordable. The proximity to the airport and Maui store was perfect. It was about a 5 minute taxi/Uber ride to both locations. The Uber’s and taxis are a little pricey, so keep that in mind. You can also order a Super Shuttle pick up, but they don’t wait for you, so plan accordingly with baggage claim and customs.
Maui Motorhome Rentals
After much research, we decided to go with Maui Rentals for our camper van. The process was very simple and the van was inexpensive. We were able to select the best camper to fit our needs via their online system. The pick-up location was right next to the airport and conveniently, the grocery store. The staff were friendly and helpful. We planned out our stops prior to arrival in New Zealand, but they had a map and suggestions for us as well. We decided to upgrade to the inclusive and express return packages. It included GPS, 1 GB of WiFi data, linens, picnic table/chairs, snow chains, zero liability for damage, and more. We also upgraded to a camper van that was less than one year old. Having all the bells and whistles made us feel more comfortable during our expedition.
The van came with 2 beds, full kitchen table, stove, grill, microwave, dishes, cookware, toilet and shower. It was fully self-contained. All you had to do was plug it into a powered campsite for power and heated air/water. The campsites had fresh water hooks up to fill up the water tank. The camper was very user friendly. If you had any questions, the GPS had how-to videos just in case you run into any issues on the road. Luckily, we never had to watch them. Everything was simple and convenient.
After picking up our new home, we headed to the grocery store to stock up. The fridge was a decent size and the van head plenty of cabinets for storage. Below is a grocery list that fit our needs perfectly and was simple to cook in the van.
- Deli meats & cheeses
- microwavable rice and veggies
- fresh veggies and fruit (bananas, apples, clementines)
- trail mix
- gatorade (post-hike electrolytes)
- coffee grinds & tea
- Bottled water
- milk/coffee creamer
- beer & wine
- trash bags
- cleaning wipes
- paper towels
- extra toilet paper
We tried to stick to the basics and not buy too many perishable items. There was definitely a lot of wasted food, but one campsite we thought had power did not, so we ate out instead of cooking. Plus, we’d rather have too much food than not enough when on the road. There were definitely a few desolate areas that we drove through. So, it was nice to have snacks and sandwiches readily available.
Day 2-3 Te Anau & Milford Sound
Day 2 you should hit the road early and make your way to Milford Sound. This was our favorite part of the trip. The drive is about 3.5 hours from Queenstown without stopping. You will want to stop for pictures almost then entire drive, so allow extra time for photo ops! The drive is easy and is basically one main road (Te Anau-Milford Hwy) to Milford. You will see signs everywhere, but we used the gps just in case. Your first scheduled stop should be in Te Anau. This town is basically the beginning of Fiordland National Park and is a major homebase for those visiting Milford Sound. This will be the last town where you can get gas, food, etc. until you reach Milford. From this point, you’ll still have about 1.5 hours to go. Make sure to stop here, fill up, and grab a coffee! The rest of the ride is the most scenic part of your journey and it will probably take you more than 2 hours with stops.
Milford Sound is part of Fiordland National Park and the largest attraction of the region. Although called a Sound, it is actually a Fjord (a long, deep body of water between high cliffs). It is famous for it’s mountainous peak called Mitre Peak, as well as two of it’s waterfalls, Stirling and Bowen Falls. The park is over 4,000 sq. miles, so with only one night to spare, I would suggest Milford Sound being your main stop. Doubtful sound is also another beautiful fjord, but you won’t have time to do both in two days. Below is a list of scenic stops along the way.
Major Scenic Stops From Queenstown to Milford Sound
- Lake Wakatipu/Devil’s Staircase Lookout
- Lake Te Anau/Te Anau Downs
- Homer Tunnel
- Mirror Lakes
- Hollyford Valley Lookout
We used the above map from Southern Discoveries as we got closer to Milford Sound. Once you get to Homer tunnel, you know you are getting close. This is a one-way tunnel built into the mountains. It is the most epic exit out of the tunnel..but we will say no more! The tunnel closes at 8 pm in the winter, so plan accordingly. Make sure you’re up-to-date with traffic advisories, as the road to Milford occasionally experiences closures. Check out the local government site here. Majority of the drive is in avalanche regions, so stop only when permitted and always use caution.
When we finally arrived (so.many..pictures), we checked into Milford Sound Lodge. Here, they had powered sites for self-contained motorhomes. It was about $60 NZD for one night. The lodge was nestled between the woods and a river. We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. It was a new feeling for us, but we adored it! The stars were bright as could be and all we could hear were animals chirping in the dark. It was amazing. We were off the grid and loved every second of it!
The lodge had a cafe and other amenities, such as showers and toilets. We weren’t there for long enough to take advantage of the site, but it was very nice. There were even a few cabin rooms along the river that were available to rent out.
The next morning we headed to milford sound to capture sunrise shots. It was the coldest day of them all, but warmed up nicely during the afternoon. Just in time for our waterfall tour! We took Southern Discoveries encounter cruise. It included a two hour tour of the sound, as well as an hour-long kayak tour. We skipped the kayak tour because it was a little chilly and we wanted to hit the road and get to Lake Wanaka before it got late. The waterfall tour was wonderful though. The guides gave us a the history on different parts of the fjord. The captain even took the boat under two of the falls! We got soaked, but it was worth it! They provided waterproof coats for anyone who wanted to go under the waterfalls. We were the only ones who stayed under the entire time!
After chasing waterfalls, we hit the road back north towards Lake Wanaka. Wanaka is located about 1 hour north of Queenstown. You will take the same Te Anau-Milford Hwy back up towards Queenstown. This round trip is closer to 5 hours.
Day 3-5 Lake Wanaka & Mt. Aspiring
Wanaka is cute town that surrounds the Lake. It’s most famous landmark is the Roy’s Peak lookout. This 2.5-3 hour hike rewards you with panoramic view of the lake, including an instaworthy shot. Well worth the hike for the spectacular views! The lake also has the well-known Wanaka tree, a haven for photographers. Other than scenic spots, the town has a bunch of cute restaurants and bars, as well as a spectacular vineyard along the lake, called Rippon winery.
We stayed at our favorite NZ campsite, Glendhu Bay. The views were unlike any other site we stayed at. The staff were very kind and let us stay on the best spot on their property. It was their slow season, so we basically got to pick where we wanted to camp out. Other than the magnificent views of Mt. Aspiring and Lake Wanaka, the site offered powered sites, toilet/shower facilities, and a laundry room. The office even sold some snacks and refreshments. Be sure to have NZD for shower and laundry use. If not, the office can charge your credit card in exchange for coins. However, some sites in NZ are cash only.
The next morning we woke up at 3:30 am to hike Roy’s Peak. We wanted to make it to the top for sunrise. The base was only a 5 minute ride from Glendhu Bay. We began our ascent around 4 am. It was pitch black, so we were sure to have our headlamps on. Thankfully, we couldn’t see how steep the hike actually was. I think that would been a total motivation buzz kill. We keep trekking along, made some friends, and saw some sheep. Lord knows how they can survive on that steep mountainside! The last push towards the end was a battle, but the views were well worth the climb. As the sun rose above the skyline, the reflections off the lake were gleaming. The snow capped mountain peaks were standing boldly around the lake. Views of Mt. Aspiring in the distance made for a spectacular backdrop. It was even more incredible in person than the pictures could ever do justice. We were like a couple of kids who just climbed Everest (us Floridians aren’t used to the hills).
The drone video below was shot with a DJI mavic air. We were able to get some pretty amazing videos and pictures with it. Luckily, we were the first to the top for sunrise, so we were able to take our time getting the perfect shot.
Be sure to dress appropriately for the climate and anticipated forecast. It was winter for us, so we bundled up in multiple layers and wore hiking boots that were waterproof. This was nice for the hike downhill. The mud turned into a slippery mess and we were happy to not be wearing sneakers!
After the hike, we celebrated by checking out the local vineyard, Rippon winery. The winery is located on Lake Wanaka and has stunning views of the distant mountains. It is the most scenic vineyard we had ever seen (and we’ve been to Tuscany!). We could have stayed there all day. We attended the wine tasting and learned about six of their most popular wines. Our wine connoisseur was very knowledgeable and friendly. Our favorite was the Osteiner wine. It is a sweet white wine that is only produced in five vineyards worldwide (4 in Germany and 1 in Rippon). We are not white wine drinkers, but we adored it. It is produced from a German grape and is a variety of Riesling & Sylvaner. We couldn’t get enough of it and took a few bottles back to the States! Unfortunately, the winery only offers tastings and doesn’t not serve glasses of wine. So, we took our vino to our lovely campsite and enjoy a glass of Pinot Noir while admiring the scenic views of Mt. Aspiring! This relaxing night we would highly recommend.
Day 5-6 Aoraki/Mount Cook, Lake Pukaki & Lake Tekapo
On day 5 we headed towards Aoraki/Mount Cook National park. This ride is about 2.5 hours from Wanaka. The drive is mostly in the middle of nowhere. So, once again, be sure to fill up the gas tank in Wanaka before hitting the road. The nearest town you will reach before finding Lake Pukaki is Omarama. You pass through the scenic Lindis Pass and many windy roads. Stop by the Lindis Pass lookout if you have time. Finally, you arrive in Lake Pukaki, which cannot be missed. It is a giant, bright blue body of water that appears suddenly amongst the hills. The water is so bright, it looks like it is glowing and occupies 69 sq. miles of land. On a nice, clear day, you can see Mt. Cook in the distance. If you are visiting in from November-December, you can enjoy the peak season of endless fields of purple Alpine lavender. There are multiple stops along the drive to Mt. Cook, so you don’t need to stop at the first lookout. Don’t forget to get the famous Aoraki/Mt. Cook road photo, but be careful! Unfortunately, due to bad weather, we were not able to get this photo. Check out Destionationless Travel’s detailed blog post on how to get this inspiring photo!
Once you’ve stopped multiple times to capture the gorgeous Lake Pukaki, continue on to Aoraki/Mount Cook. Basically, just follow the large mountain peaks for another 20 minutes or so. More signs will guide you to the specific area you are looking for. We stopped at the Tasman Glacier first. This is the largest glacier in New Zealand. It is about a 15 min hike to the top or a 20 minute walk to the bottom. We did both so we could have views from different locations. The glacier water was beautiful, but it was disappointing to read about how quickly the glacier has been melting over time. We were fortunate enough to visit while the glacier lake is still present.
To warm up after our glacier hike, we headed into town and grabbed dinner at The Old Mountaineer’s Cafe. It was a lodge-style spot that overlooked Mt. Cook. We were grateful that they had a fireplace by our table. The beer and wine was fabulous and the food was equally as good. Although, the pizza in New Zealand isn’t the best.
Be sure to try the lobster bisque! We loved that they served organic and free-range food only. The service was great and we appreciated the views.
That night we stayed at the White Horse Hill campsite, which conveniently was only a 5 minute drive from the cafe. We misread the info on the campsite and thought it was a powered site. That night was cold and rainy and we had nowhere to hook up power to. So, we slept through the rain storm in between the mountains. A little creepy, but we just bundled up with the extra blankets from the van and wore our thermals to bed. We didn’t have any issues that night with the cold. This was the only campsite we stayed at that did not have an office. They have an honor box that accepts $20 NZD per camper. If you want a powered campsite that is near by, check out Glentanner Holiday Park Mount Cook. It is located on Lake Pukaki about 20 minutes outside of Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Day 6-7 Christchurch
Christchurch was our last stop on our road trip before heading to Australia. We had to return the camper van in the afternoon, so we decided to check out the city. We heard excellent things about their restaurants and nightlife, so we took the advice and did just that!
Our first stop was an Asian cuisine restaurant called King of Snake. The food and cocktails were amazing! If you like spicy cocktails, be sure to order the King of Snake drink. It has a nice kick to it. Also, the pad thai and kung pao chicken were very tasty. Great atmosphere, but this place fills up, so be sure to make a reservation!
We love a good speakeasy when traveling to new cities. We found the coolest one of them all here in Christchurch. It is called the Red Light District and we won’t ruin the fun, but finding it is tricky 😉 The cocktails were to die for and the service was phenomenal. We spoke to Justin the bartender for almost 20 minutes. He was so much fun to converse with and gave us great recommendations for our Australia travels. Cayla was also super friendly and gave us great eastern Australia tips!
Tip: Try the Forbidden Fabulous and the Florence Nightingale
Surprisingly, we found an adorable DoubleTree, Chateau in the Park, for next to nothing. It was extremely comfy and cozy, which we were grateful for after spending 5 days in a camper. The receptionist even gave us hot, fresh cookies when we arrived. It’s the little things make us happy! The hotel was all we needed for one night. It was less than 20 minutes from the airport and easy to get Uber rides to and from. We were satisfied with our stay and would highly recommend it.
New Zealand is by far our favorite country that we have traveled to so far. It’s difficult to beat its majestic landscape, wonderful people, and adventurous characteristics. The South Island is the most scenic drive we have ever encountered. We fell in love with everything it had to offer. No doubt, we will return again one day. Maybe next time we can experience its summertime beauty. 🖤