I’ve had a love affair with New Zealand ever since I finished grad school, when I packed all of my possessions away in storage and landed in this charmed country with nothing more than my laptop, a suitcase of clothes and a yearlong work visa. It was by far the best year of my life (except of course the last three that I’ve lived with my boyfriend in San Francisco). So two years ago, when Air New Zealand was having a crazy sale on tickets from SFO to AKL, I jumped at the chance to take the one I love to the places I adore.With limited time for our trip, we focused on the South Island, whose natural beauty is unparalleled. And naturally we rented a car for a road trip, as the country is so well set up for. In just a couple weeks, we saw fiords, wine country, mountains, plains, subtropical forest and endless miles of coastline (yes, nature is greedy in New Zealand)—in a country not much bigger than Colorado. Here were our favorite stops.
1. Arrival: Wellington
There are limited choices when flying into New Zealand, but Wellington is surely the top choice. This walkable capital city is equal parts eclectic and beautiful, nestled between rolling green hills and a busy harbor, with excellent nightlife and restaurants in between. It’s also at the southern tip of the North Island, the perfect hop-off for the beginning of a South Island adventure.
2. Transfer to Picton There are two ferry services in Wellington that make the 3-hour crossing of the Cook Straight. Hop on either of them to Picton, a tiny town that almost everyone traveling from the North to the South Island must pass through. The ferry isn’t just a means of transport—it’ll also take you through the breathtaking Marlborough Sounds. Pick up a rental car in Picton and you’ll be on your way for an unforgettable road trip.
3. Pit Stop: Wine Country Driving south from Picton through Blenheim, you can’t help but notice the endless vineyards of New Zealand's largest wine-producing region, Marlborough. Do yourself a favor and stop at any and all of them. Even if you don’t discover a delicious bottle or two, you’ll be warmly welcomed by small town Kiwi hospitality. There’s also the option to spend the night in one of the area’s quaint B&B’s or backpackers.
4. Kaikoura is a sleepy seaside village with abundant sea life that draws visitors by the thousands. The place itself is gorgeous, surrounded by green farmland and snow capped mountains that taper off into a turquoise ocean. The top attractions here are whale watching trips, swimming with dolphin experiences, and finger-licking meals of fresh-caught crayfish, which is what Kaikoura means in the language of the Maoris, the indigenous people of NZ.
5. Punakaiki Way over on the wild west coast is Punakaiki, home of the pancake rocks. Be sure to pack food and fill up on fuel as you won’t find any of that here. But you will find amazingly lush subtropical forests, adventurous hikes to the mouths of rivers, and battles between craggy cliffs and powerful waves on the endless stretch of coastline. Stay the night at the Punakaiki Beach Hostel, a lovely yellow beach-front hostel that’s run by a German couple, and offers nice, private rooms for only about $40 a night.
6. Arthur’s Pass Thanks to the Southern Alps that tower over of most of the South Island’s center, there are only a few ways to drive across the country. One of them is a mountain pass called Arthur’s Pass, and like all of New Zealand it offers picture-like scenery. Spend the night in the town of Arthur’s Pass, and wake up to explore Arthur’s Pass National Park and all of it’s waterfalls, mountain tops and cheeky mountain parrots called Keas.
7. Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki After just under 4 hours of driving, you’ll come across a pair of picture perfect lakes called Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, both about 40 minutes apart and both surrounded by the snow-capped Southern Alps. (Don’t worry, they are both conveniently on the way to the next stop). Lake Tekapo is home to the famous wedding spot, Church of the Good Shepherd, and has nearby natural hot springs you can soak in. Lake Pukaki offers a fantastic view of Mt. Cook. Those looking for a remote spot to lay their heads can even drive 45 beautiful minutes along the lake to Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park.
Wanaka is a gorgeous town on the southern shores of the lake of the same name—and a definite stop for any traveler. Less commercialized than the next stop (Queenstown), Wanaka offers quaint cafes, lively nightlife, and outdoor activities ranging from kayaking to snowboarding to paragliding. One spot not to miss is Rippon Vineyard, which with its view of the lake and mountains is arguably the most beautiful winery in the world. And the wine’s not bad either. Bring a picnic and enjoy the scenery.
Wanaka Rippon Vinyard
The resort town of Queenstown is sort of a no-brainer to visit—it attracts locals and people from all over the world. It also has a reputation for being the Adventure Capital of the World, so if you are into bungee jumping, sky diving and heliskiing, it’s certainly the place to be. If not, there’s plenty of restaurants, shopping and scenery to enjoy. Plus it’s a great jump-off point for the final destination on this road trip.
10. Milford Sound
It’s a good 4-hour drive from civilization, but Milford Sound is one of the most magical places you’ll ever see. And the entire drive to get there is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, so time will just slip away. Milford Sound itself is fjord in the middle of a national park, surrounded by with lush green subtropical tropical forests, with waterfalls everywhere. Hop on a day cruise ship and sail around the sound, marveling at seals, penguins, and the iconic Mitre Peak. If you're really into hiking and need to stretch you legs after the car ride, opt for the 3 day Milford Track, which is named one of the top ten hikes in the world. After you’ve picked your jaw off the ground, it’s time to back to Queenstown (sadly) for your flight home. Milford Sound - Mitre Creek
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