Travel to New Zealand
It’s possible to see New Zealand's South island highlights on a whistle-stop 8 –day tour like I’ve just done, but be aware that there’s no time to get over the jet lag! I’d recommend you spend at least 2 or 3 weeks on each island to fully appreciate everything on offer.
Throughout my travels, I’d never actually managed to get to New Zealand and with so many of my passengers heading there, I wanted to see what it was all about. I planned a trip to the South Island to start off with…
Exploring the South Island highlights
I joined a tour focusing on Transiting through Auckland, we started in Christchurch and drove inland to the Alps, before continuing south along the coast as far as possible. Using internal flights you can save time if you’re in a real hurry – but it’s far better to take your time. My next visit will be far more leisurely!
First stop was an afternoon exploring Christchurch. As it was my first visit, I didn’t have any reference to the city before the 2011 earthquake; large parts of the city were decimated and it feels like a Hollywood disaster movie set in places. Listening to local residents, many of them knew at least one person who lost their life. However, it’s clearly a city rising out of the rubble and re-inventing itself with more hotels and attractions than ever being built. I reckon it’s going to be buzzing within the next few years and well worth another visit.
Banks Peninsula – swimming with dolphins
From Christchurch we drove for 90 minutes towards the Banks Peninsula. Winding through farmland and across rolling hills, we headed for a little town called Akaroa. Perched on a beautiful bay, there’s one main attraction – swimming with rare Hector dolphins. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t kind, so we missed out on the swim, but at least I have an excuse to go back!
Lake Tekapo is about a 3 hour drive down from Christchurch. Whilst there isn’t really anywhere to stop apart from a quick lunch break in Geraldine (a regular stop for the Kiwi Experience buses), the Southern Alps are a constant stunning horizon view all the way there.
Lake Tekapo itself is pristine and a must see destination for amazing pictures. The town is very small, with some hostels, a wonderful Peppers resort hotel (where I stayed) and hot springs. Well worth an overnight stay.
Night time star–gazing over Lake Tekapo
It’s incredible to realise just how much light pollution we have in the UK compared to the skies over New Zealand – in fact this area is the largest dark sky site in the world with amazing clarity at night. It’s a fantastic location if you’re into astro-photography.
Nestled on the top of a mountain above the lake, you can spend 2 hours discovering what’s really up in the sky. Wrapped up in huge warm coats, and surviving on hot chocolate, you’ll be able to see the Milky Way, Saturn and a whole host of southern hemisphere constellations. Amazing!
The early morning drive from Tekapo to Mount Cook blew me away. Driving through desert and mountains, you won’t see another car outside your tour group for 40–45 minutes at a time. Mt Cook (the highest peak in New Zealand) looms on the horizon, gradually getting closer and more spectacular.
We arrived at the famous Hermitage hotel (where every room has a mountain view!) which is at the foot of the mountain and joined a 4WD safari tour to take us up off road into the mountains. Forget trying this with a car or campervan – there’s no chance. Sat in an 8 wheel Argo vehicle, we swept across boulders and through deep puddles of icey water. It’s bumpy, but the views across the glacier, vertical drops and mountain are well worth it!
It’s a short drive from here to the Blue Penguin Centre where you can see about 200 penguins swim up to the shore in waves from about dusk. It’s great pre-dinner entertainment as they waddle up the rocks towards their nests, although it can be pretty chilly and no photography is allowed, for the protection of the birds.
Our next stop was the Moerkai Boulders and although I wasn’t really sure what to expect, the whole area amazed me - it was a real highlight.
The Moerkai boulders are a Maori legend; scattered across the beach and soaring out of the sand like huge eggs, these boulders are quite a sight. The café here also does amazing breakfasts to perk up the tired traveller!
Next stop: Dunedin - a vibrant university town with a Scottish feel (think Edinburgh but sunnier). The city offers great entertainment, accommodation (I stayed at the Millennium Kingsgate Hotel), sports and only a 20 minute drive out onto the Otago Peninsula. Whilst there, you need to visit Baldwin Street (the world’s steepest street) and take a tour of Speight’s Brewery – this is my new favourite beer and it’s also a South New Zealand institution!
Otago Peninsula, Stewart Island and looking for Kiwis
The Otago Peninsula is great for sailing, cycling, stunning views and its home to albatross, penguins, seals and much, much more. It’s also a jumping off point for Stewart Island, which is off the beaten track – it’s the Southern-most tip of New Zealand and next stop is Antarctica.
You can take a 20 minute light aircraft flight to Stewart Island from Invercargill (not for the faint hearted). Flying through the clouds, below you can see crystal clear waters and native rainforest. Think Jurassic Park and you aren’t far wrong.
Stewart Island has only 400 proud full time residents and over 75% of the island is yet to be explored. It’s a nature lover’s paradise with many treks and native wildlife safe from predators. Our night here was the highlight of my whole tour – you get the chance to sail out to a deserted island in the dark, trek through rainforest by torchlight and search for native Kiwi’s on the beach. We managed to find 3 birds and it was an amazing experience seeing them in their natural habitat.
Returning to Auckland
Most tours to start and finish in Auckland like mine did. From here, you can head into the North Island for more exploring, or get your international flight out of New Zealand.
I’m so glad I made this trip (albeit a whistle stop adventure!) - now I understand why everyone raves about this country; it’s stunning and so easy to get around!