This is a trip report for a one week road trip around South Island in March 2014. It was my wife and myself on the trip (we are in our early 30s). We really packed a lot into the week, but it all worked out well in the end, and it was an excellent trip with many highlights!
DAY 1: we flew into Blenheim from Wellington, on possibly the shortest flight I have ever been on (just 15 minutes!). The Blenheim airport was tiny and we were out of there in no time at all, with rental car in hand. It was around 9:30am, and we had a short stroll around the town before heading to the Omaka Aviation Museum.
We are generally not fans of museums, but found Omaka fascinating! The displays were so life-like, their attention to detail was amazing. Adjacent to this was a classic car museum, we had a quick look around here as well (this would be interesting to car enthusiasts, but there is no comparison to the aviation museum).
After the museums, we headed over to Pollard Park, which was quite pleasant and colourful with various flower displays. After spending a bit of time here, it was now time for an early lunch at Rock Ferry (a winery). This was an excellent meal, one of our favourites from the whole trip!
Following lunch, we started our road trip, heading off towards Kaikoura. We did a short detour to the Salt Works (nothing great, but it’s on the way), and the only proper stop was at Ohau, to see the seals, of which there were many. Now, I feel I may have missed something here, I stopped at the ‘Ohau lookout’ which is on the ocean side of the road. In my research I had read about the Ohau waterfall which is located after a short walk inland, but I did not come across that!
We arrived in Kaikoura in the mid-afternoon and checked into our accommodation at Waves on the Esplanade (decent apartment, well stocked). After only a short break we headed to the Peninsula Walkway, which is a scenic walk along a cliff top. We covered most of the walk before turning around and heading back. In this sunny weather it was quite an enjoyable walk.
We had dinner at the Green Dolphin, which I believe was the most popular place in town (the only competitor had closed due to a fire). The food was good, although service was lacking.
DAY 2: the first of many early starts, we checked in at the Whale Watch office by 7:15am. We had been warned about sea sickness so had purchased the locally recommended ‘Kaikoura Cracker’ from the pharmacy the day before. It turns out it wasn’t needed, as we had very calm seas on our trip. We were fortunate enough to enjoy 3 whale sightings (2 different whales) on our outing, as well as a very active pod of dusky dolphins.
We were done by around 11am and had a quick snack before setting off on our longest single day drive of the trip (350km). We were heading towards the West Coast and had a lunch stop in Hanmer Springs at the Powerhouse Café. There were not many other stops during this particular drive, and it ended up taking less time than expected. We arrived at the Birds Ferry Lodge by late afternoon (located about 20km before Punakaiki). This was a beautiful setting for an overnight stop. We had great views from our private cottage with resident ducks roaming around in the outside pond/gardens. Dinner and breakfast were provided in the cottage, so it was a relaxing way to recover from the journey so far.
DAY 3: we left by around 9am, and stopped in Punakaiki at the famous pancake rocks. We had timed it to be there for high tide, but despite this the blowholes were not active (seas too calm perhaps?). It was still a worthwhile stop with interesting rock formations.
We then continued the drive along the West Coast. There were some unique views along the first section of this drive up to Greymouth, but overcast/foggy weather made the drive a bit less exciting that it could have been. Our next stop was Hokitika Gorge, which is a short detour from the main road. The weather had become sunny again by now, and we enjoyed some nice views of the very blue water. After a lunch stop in Hokitika (at Stumpers Bar) we were off again.
We arrived in Franz Josef at around 4pm at Te Waonui, which is a full service hotel (we didn’t come across many of these in our trip!). It was a very nice property, although the average guest was probably twice our age! After a few consecutive days of long drives, we had planned some activities to help us recover – we started with a session at the hot pools (next door to the hotel), after which we had massage treatments – one of us at the hot pools (disappointing) and the other at the hotel (excellent). We finished the day with dinner at the hotel, which was very good, although quite formal.
DAY 4: the weather gods smiled down upon us for our first activity, which was a 40 minute scenic helicopter ride covering both Franz Josef and Fox glaciers as well as Mount Cook. The sun was out and there was not even a bit of wind (according to our pilot). This was one of the highlights of our trip. The views were phenomenal, and I loved the snow landing (on top of a mountain, with blankets of snow as far as the eye could see).
We were done by around 9:30am, at which point we headed to Franz Josef glacier. Here, we walked up to the closest viewpoint of the glacier face. This was actually quite a long walk, and took a couple of hours for the return trip.
We then headed to Lake Matheson, and here we opted for the shorter of the walks, which took us to the main viewing point of the lake with Mount Cook in the background. Even though the sun was beaming, we couldn’t enjoy the famous mirror views as there were plenty of ripples in the lake. We had lunch at the Matheson Café, which provided excellent views from their terrace.
After a leisurely lunch, we went back into Fox where we had scheduled a half-day hike onto Fox glacier. We had a large group with us and the tour was well organised. The actual time on ice was around one hour, but this was sufficient for us, and we managed to see two ice caves (featuring blue ice) during this time. It was funny how the weather suddenly became much cooler once on the ice!
After the hike, we went back into Franz and had a nice dinner at 88 Asian Fusion (it was good to have a change of cuisine). This was a tiring day overall, with plenty of walking!
DAY 5: we left Franz and headed towards Wanaka. On this particular drive there were plenty of stops. I had chosen my stops in advance and these were Knights Point, Ship Creek, Thunder Creek Falls, Fantail Fails and the Blue Pools. All of these were worthwhile stops, but the Blue Pools were my favourite, with amazing turquoise waters on display.
We ended up not stopping for lunch during this trip (the only town en route was Haast and we had arrived there a bit too early), so once we arrived in Wanaka in the mid afternoon we went straight into the town centre for a quick bite. We had a short stroll around town and then went to find our accommodation, which was at Riverrun Lodge (about 10 min out of town). This was a cosy lodge, which felt more like family home, and the views from our room were unbelievable (especially during sunrise the next day).
We headed back into town for dinner at the famous Francesca’s, which again was an enjoyable meal.
DAY 6: an adrenaline packed morning was in store with our first attempts at skydiving! Our luck with good weather was set to continue with wonderful sunny skies on this particular day (quite a turnaround from the overcast weather the previous day). As expected, this was one of the highlights of our trip. It was a well-organised activity and it felt safe.
After this, we headed to Queenstown via the more scenic route (as advised by our lodge – can’t remember what it’s called). It was indeed quite scenic, and we were surprised that we were still making photo stops after all the scenery we had already enjoyed in the preceding days!
We just stopped in Queenstown for lunch, at the famous and incredibly busy Fergburger, before continuing on to drive to Glenorchy. This was meant to be one of the best drives and it was indeed very beautiful, even with overcast weather. This was all about the drive, so once completed we spent very little time in Glenorchy before turning around and heading back to Queenstown.
Once back in Queenstown, it was time to return our rental car, after which we roamed around a bit and did a bit of shopping. Although the biggest town we visited, it still felt pretty tiny! We were staying at the Sofitel in Queenstown, which was an excellent property and was located right in the heart of town.
We had dinner at The Bunker, which was very nice and felt like sitting in an old gentleman’s club.
DAY 7: an early start for our day trip to Milford Sound. We had booked the excursion with Real Journeys, which seemed to be the biggest operator in town. The outbound journey was by bus and they had specially designed coaches with glass roofs, to maximise our views. There were a couple of stops en route, and once again it was quite a scenic trip.
At Milford we had about an hour wait before our boat departed. The boat ride just goes up the fjord and then turns back. A very simple journey! It stopped at a few waterfalls en route as well. This was another sunny day, but in this case rain would have actually been preferred (as apparently this creates many more waterfalls). I actually felt that Milford didn’t live up to the (very high) expectations, perhaps the sunny weather played a part.
The return journey to Queenstown was by plane. I would highly recommend this option over returning by coach, it as it saves you several hours from a very long day. It is of course weather dependent, and here the sunny weather played to our favour, and the pilot declared conditions for this flight could not be any better! It was a small plane with just 6 passengers on board. This flight was truly spectacular. The views were some of the best in our trip, and this was definitely our favourite segment of this days outing.
Once back in town we had a few hours of chill out time before our dinner, which was at Botswana Butchery. This was our favourite meal of the trip!
DAY 8: we had planned a couple of activities for this final morning, namely the Shotover Jet and the Skyline Gondola/Luge. However, after the action packed week we had already had, we decided to do something a bit different – chill out! We had a late start, a leisurely breakfast and then just roamed around town. We headed off to the airport at around 1:30pm for our flight to Sydney.
CONCLUSION: we travel a lot, but this has to be one of our favourite trips to date. Looking back on it now, it is hard to believe that so much was seen and done within just one week. We were certainly blessed with the weather though, and didn’t have to cancel or even reschedule any activity we had booked. We will have to return one day!