6 South Island Activities I Would Plan a Vacation Around
New Zealand is AMAZING...I don't think that anyone will argue with you on this. The problem with being so amazing is that when you try to plan a trip, it is VERY difficult to narrow down all the go-to spots and when you talk to someone about New Zealand, you will add 10 more places to your list. So let's try to make it a bit easier.
After having spent 3 weeks on the South Island this past February (which us Americans thought was a long time, but once we were down there everyone laughed when we said how long we were staying), I decided to make up a list of places worth going out of your way for. Anything in between is an added bonus! If you have any others to add, feel free to comment below.
**Note: My husband and I are very outdoor and adventure oriented, however we did have some down days which are just as important and can be just as fun (see #4) **
1. The Routeburn Track :: Fiordlands
The Routeburn Track is rightly known as one of the Great Walks and from talking to several folks and reading lots of blogs I see it often listed as the BEST Great Walk! This was the first activity of our 3 week excursion and was our favorite part of the whole trip. Even though it is a relatively short backpacking trip (3 days) you are still able to see so many different ecosystems packed in one hike. We saw forests, rainforests, alpine lakes, rivers, snow-capped peaks, and meadows all in one go. Most of the second day was spent walking along a ridge that overlooks the Hollyford Valley and a parallel mountain range. Many of the other Great Walks are much longer, so if you are looking for a shorter one and not wanting to compromise on beauty...this one is for you!
For more on the Routeburn Track, check out my full run-down here.
Devil Burger (Great Curry Fries): ★ ★ ★ ☆☆
Fergberger (as good as everyone says): ★★★★★
2. Seeing "Edoras" :: Canterbury
Let this be the hour when we draw swords together. Fell deeds awake. Now for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn. Forth, Eorlingas!
-King Theoden of Rohan
If you are also a nerd and love all things Lord of the Rings, then this place is a must! But even if you are not a fan of hobbits, elves, and dwarves, and are more in tune with nature and mountains, then Mt. Sunday (or Edoras) is an epic place and well worth the somewhat lengthy drive. To be surrounded by mountains and not see a single road is thrilling beyond belief.
As for logistics, since it was a bit out of the way, we stayed at the Mt. Potts Lodge which was simple but lovely and a quick 2 minute drive to Mt. Sunday. There are also several tour groups that go to the mountain as well.
Amazing Tea, Meat Pies, Gluten Free Goodies, and Service
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
3. Mt. Cook/ Aoraki National Park
No matter what the weather, Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park is worth a visit. It was pretty much pouring rain and thunderstorming the whole time we were there but it was still one of our favorite days...so that says something right? The photo above is about as clear as it got so we could only really see the lower half of all the mountains, but the elements and thunder echoing throughout the valley made for quite the epic display.
Due to the weather we didn't want to get too far from camp, so we hiked the Hooker Valley Trail. Rain or shine, this trail was beautiful and not difficult at all. With that being said, we will certainly be back in the future to cover more trails.
For more on our not-so-dry experience, check out the full blog post here.
4. Cinema Paradiso :: Wanaka
When you think of going to the movies, you are probably thinking pretty uncomfortable seats, delicious but horrible popcorn, and people always getting up to go to the bathroom (or not going to the bathroom because you don't want to miss anything) ...am I right? Well...not at Cinema Paradiso.
We decided to go to Cinema Paradiso after seeing it pop up on several Wanaka must-do lists...and I am so glad we did...not only because it was an incredible movie theater, but it felt like a cultural experience that couldn't be missed even though it was on a down-day (post backpacking trip).When we walked into the movie theater we were greeted with such kindness and purchased our tickets and ordered two glasses of wine for the show. While doing so, the host asked if we would like freshly baked cookies (Gluten Free optional) for intermission. First off, intermission?? What a great idea to offer a break to go to the bathroom, get more snacks and prevent people walking around during the movie! And two, COOKIES??? And three, GLUTEN FREE?!?!?! This place already had 4 stars just asking that question.
Then once we got into the movie theater we had several choices of seating options...there was an old convertible car, several couches, old airline seats, and some regular theater seats. We went for a front row sofa, which was a good choice...5 stars it is. Then come intermission and the cookies were fresh out of the oven and delicious! When we go back to New Zealand we will certainly go to Wanaka for another movie...and hike up Roy's Peak.
Oh, and Deadpool was hilarious :)
5. Dolphin Encounter :: Kaikoura
When we were planning our trip we knew we wanted to see some ocean-life but since we were on a budget we had to choose between a sperm whale watch or swim with dolphins. My husband's life-long dream was to swim with dolphins so it didn't take too long to decide...and boy were we in for a treat. The Dolphin Encounter was the perfect operation as they were eco-friendly, efficient and all around wonderful.
We went on the early morning tour and were out on the boat for sunrise! It was gorgeous to witness the glassy calm water reflecting the orange/pink hue of the sky with dolphins following our boat. You didn't have to swim with the dolphins for an awesome experience...BUT...swimming with the dolphins was magical. Unlike most dolphin swim companies, this was in the open ocean in uncontrolled circumstances. We first had to go find a pod of Dusky Dolphins (who are residents of Kaikoura) and determine what direction they were headed. We would situate the boat ahead of the pod and hop into the water with full insulated wetsuits, snorkels and flippers. Hundreds of dolphins swam past us, jumped and flipped around us, and circled us. If you are lucky you can even make eye contact with them.
We had about 4-5 swims of 10-15 minutes each...though by the end I was quite exhausted, hard to keep up with these fellas. After the swim we were offered hot chocolate and a warm water spritz on the boat.
Again, whether you swim or just observe the whole scene, it is spectacular!
Dolphin Encounter ★★★★★
6. Kayaking Milford Sound :: Fiordlands
Kayaking Milford Sound was our last big event during our 3 week trip. At that point we were deliriously happy from all of our adventuring and traveling. As with most days of the year in the Fiordlands, our Milford experience was full of rain...6 inches to be exact...and it added more drama to the already dramatic landscape!
We spent the day before our kayaking excursion driving up and down the Milford Road watching the rivers and streams flood and waterfalls cascade down the cliffs. We ended up camping the night and woke up early for our morning paddle with Rosco's Milford Kayaks. Luckily the rain held off for the most part during our paddle and we were able to kayak for several hours seeing the humongous cliffs (including the famous Mitre Peak) and learning about the incredible ecosystem the Fiordlands have become. If you are lucky, you may even see some dolphins and penguins on your trip!
If possible, I highly recommend combining a kayak (for a more peaceful experience) with a boat tour (to see more of Milford Sound).
For more info on Milford Sound and camping details see full blog post here.
***Note the huge smile...husband recommended!***