Me and my wife are planning a one week trip to South Island in March next year. I've done a first round of research and come up with a provisional itinerary. By way of background, this week will be preceded by some time in Australia and a couple of days in Wellington (to visit a relative). We are a young couple (early 30s), and we do tend to pack in a lot on our holidays - most people would say we are rushing things, but this has always worked out fine for us! The budget is fairly flexible (within reason!). We prefer 4/5 star accommodation where available.
DAY 1: fly into Nelson from Wellington, arriving at around 9am. Pick up a hire car and head towards Kaikoura. Stop in Blenheim for a couple of hours before arriving in Kaikoura by mid-afternoon. Visit the Ohau waterfall (en route) and Peninsula Walkway. Overnight in Kaikoura at Waves on the Esplanade.
DAY 2: early start (7:15am) for whale watching. Set off to Punakaiki by around 11am, aiming to arrive by late afternoon or early evening. Overnight near Punakaiki at the Bird's Ferry Lodge.
DAY 3: visit the Pancake Rocks at high tide (approx 10:30am), before heading off to Franz Josef. Arrive in Franz Josef by mid-afternoon for a 2 night stay at Te Waonui.
DAY 4: go for a basic level glacier walk in the morning - probably Fox Glacier due to the much lower costs. Visit the hot pools in the afternoon.
DAY 5: leave for Queenstown in the morning, aiming for a mid-afternoon arrival. Base ourselves at the Sofitel for the remaining 3 nights.
DAY 6: day trip to Milford Sound (go via bus, return via plane). Returning via plane should allow for some extra hours in Queenstown.
DAY 7: visit Wanaka, try out some sky diving(!)
DAY 8: part day in Queenstown. Flight to Sydney leaves at 5pm.
I figure that the first three days will be very tiring due to all the driving, but things should calm down a bit after that. I would be keen to hear any tips or advice that other travelers have, and in particular:
1) Blenheim - we are just passing through, so no time for a vineyard tour. Is there anything we could do here in 1-2 hours? Maybe just stroll around the center? Perhaps have lunch at a winery?
2) Franz Josef - it seems like there aren't any activities apart from the glacier walks and hot pools. What else would you do here to fill half a day or so?
3) Are there are any other higher end accommodation options worth considering in Kaikoura and Punakaiki?
4) We would like to include one helicopter ride at some point (one of the less expensive ones, i.e. no more than 20-30 min duration). They seem to offer helicopter rides in multiple cities - which would be the best place to do it (I will have to weigh it up against Uluru as well, which we will be visiting earlier in the trip). I am leaning towards either Wanaka or Uluru at the moment.
Thanks very much!