South Island of New Zealand
The excitement of exploring New Zealand grew with each passing day. We did quite a lot of planning to orchestrate the details of the two week adventure and we were anxious to see our hard work pay off!
As travel day approached, it became clear why this isn’t a destination on everyone’s travel list- we had two flights to get there with lots of travel time in between to get to our first destination in New Zealand. Our goal was to stay awake during our flight to LAX (6 hours), then sleep the entire flight to AUK (13 hours), and finally stay awake on the final leg to Queenstown (2 hours) where we would start the trip.
For the most part, the travel day went as planned. First was our domestic flight to LAX. Our journey through security was a breeze with TSA pre-check and the flight to LAX was smooth. I watched three movies back-to-back and definitely hit my movie quota for the year. We had a long journey walking from the arrival terminal to the TBIT (Tom Bradley International Terminal)- there is a shuttle that can transport people as well but it was a bit of a walk (30 minutes as a fast pace) if you are short on time. Once at TBIT, we had to go through security again before settling at our gate. Craving something to settle our stomachs before the long flight, we had rice bowls for Panda Express and it was honestly exactly what we needed- no regrets.
And then, the big flight 13 hour red eye to Auckland. Surprisingly, we both tolerated the flight very well being able to sleep for a majority of the flight- some hours of sleep were better than others but overall much better than anticipated. I didn’t even need any Office episodes (nightly lullaby) to help sleep. Though the white noise loop I downloaded from YouTube was very helpful along with the eye masks in prolonging the sleep cycles. And the food was actually quite good- especially the breakfast- a fruit platter with a muffin and yogurt. It was the perfect way to end the flight.
It was time to navigate the international terminal at Auckland airport. Following the signs to border control, many passport holders are able to use the e-passport lanes which is self-service. We watched as many people got the green light to go through while others were rejected. Trying to find the pattern with little luck, it was my turn. I answer the prompted questions and progressed through the first set of doors, then the camera took my photo and after a few minutes to process, rejected me. Kevin and I went to the Assistance Lane where our passports were inspected manually.
Things we learned if using the e-passport: 1) rolling luggage seems to be an issue- ask one of the patrol officers to escort the luggage while you process your passport 2) make sure your passport photo matches the photo that the camera will take of you- this was my mistake as my passport photo does not have glasses on and my hair is tied back and when I was at the check point, I had my glasses on and my hair down. Love the concept and it helped moved people so much quicker through this very time consuming process. Too bad it did not work for us but at least we got our passports stamped!
After passport check, we proceeded to declaration and it is taken seriously. From what we read, if you are unsure just declare it. We declared packaged food items (snacks we brought for the flights) and our gear (bags and shoes) as they have been hiking in other countries. After a few questions and inspection of our items (including mandatory x-ray), we were released and followed the signs to domestic flights. The Auckland airport maps this route by having a bold green line on the ground directing people to the domestic gate (and vice versa if traveling the opposite). We proceeded to security and our gate before jumping on our last flight to Queenstown to official start our New Zealand adventure.
Make sure when planning your travel itinerary you leave at least 2-3 hours between flights to allow for any delays, disembarking from the plane, and security lines to ensure the best travel day possible. We had 3 hours between our Los Angeles and Auckland flight and 2 hours for Auckland to Queenstown which worked well for us but would have definitely been trouble if one of the flights was delayed- particularly our first flight to Los Angeles. We chose to do all the flying up front to hopefully ensure a less stressful experience going home.
Also be aware that the flights are very strict with the luggage requirements (7 kg / 15.4 lbs). While neither of our flights going to New Zealand weighed our bags, we witnessed neighboring gates in the terminal inspect every bag. We could not tell the rhyme or reason but it is important to know your flights bag restrictions. You will be reminded constantly ahead of the flight and at the airport that if your carry on exceeds the restriction there will be charged a hefty fee to check. Evaluate your packing situation ahead of time to decide if a checked bag is necessary.
The final minutes of our flight into Queenstown were jaw dropping. We flew right in between massive mountains as we made our way to the airport. Announcements overhead indicated several times that no electronic devices were permitted to be in use while on the tar mat and it was clear why. We walked amazed at the landscape around us. Thank you for the welcome, New Zealand!
Read about our Queenstown adventure!
This way our day to discover the magic of Mildford Sound but bad weather in the area canceled our trip. It became obvious. We had the car already and the day was now wide open- we would move Mt Cook up immediately. A three hour journey, we would still have enough day light to complete at least the 3 hour trail. This gave us little time to mourn missing Mildford sound…another itinerary item we were forced to miss. It is very sad to go home and not seen the wonders of Milford Sound, but it seems like we are developing a list of to-do’s quickly for a return journey. Perhaps we can even complete the three day backpacking trek through the sound- look for a bright side.
As we walked to the car, we diverged to a pit stop at Fergburger. Knowing we would now be leaving Queenstown, we needed to know what this place was all about. The line was fortunately the least crowded we had seen it and the five minute wait got us to order and another ten for our burgers. I ordered the Sweet Bambi (wild fiordland deer, brie cheese, boysenberry and caramelized onion chutney, aioli) and Kevin order the classic Fergburger featuring prime New Zealand beef. Neither of us were hungry so these would be snacks for later. The final verdict would have to wait!
Our first long distance drive on the left hand side – 3 hour journey to Mt Cook. With inclement weather canceling our trip to Milford Sound, we headed straight for Mt Cook to avoid Wednesday’s rain. We left Queenstown around 12PM hoping to be on the trail before 3:30PM. We would be able to experience Mt Cook in perfect conditions.
We were amazed at the change in scenery. Every so often, we went over a hill and then magically the bare mountain sides turned to lush evergreen tress then turned to miles of straw color before blossoming grape vines. It was hard to keep up and definitely kept the drive entertaining.
Before we knew it, we were seeing snow cap peaks in the distance and then Mt Cook emerged from the pack. Nature carved a perfect frame to showcase the highest peak in New Zealand- it was hard to miss on this clear day and were thankful to have the opportunity to see it so unobstructed.
The drive runs beside Lake Pukaki for a long stretch and the water is just a brilliant color blue! There is a lookout stopped at- impossible not to snap a photo. It was such a beautiful drive.
We arrived to Aokari Village around 3PM and made our way to the Hooker Valley Track, a three hour return to the lake in front of Mt Cook. We could feel hungry starting to emerge so we took a few bits of the burgers before heading out- not the best pre-hiking food but we had to try these burgers! Other than being quite enormous, Fergburger offers so many different varietals of burgers. I ordered the Sweet Bambi (wild fiordland deer, brie cheese, boysenberry and caramelized onion chutney, aioli) and Kevin order the classic Fergburger featuring prime NZ beef.
Even though they were not hot, these burgers were both amazing and definitely some of the best burgers we have had. My burger was very unique and I just loved the sweet flavors and Kevin said the tomato relish elevated the burger. We were happy to have not missed out on these and experience the fad! I wonder how far a Fergbuger has traveled- most people eat them immediately or munch on them walking around Queenstown. Has a Fergburger traveled farther than Mt Cook?
Read about hike to see Mt Cook!
I checked for accommodations in Aokari Village five months before the trip and everything was booked. If your heart is set on staying in the village and for an affordable price, make sure to book very early. We ended up staying an hour south of Mt Cook right outside of Twizel in a unique space ship Airbnb. Very neat experience that even had a sky light for the stars and a window that is perfectly positioned for a view of Mt Cook.
This area so unique because it is the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the world and we could not wait to see the night sky, hoping the clouds would wait until tomorrow.
Now that we had a means of reheating, we finished up our burgers before getting ready for bed. As we laid there, struggling to stay awake after the long day, we picked out several stars before dozing off.
Waking up around 5AM, we could vaguely make out the stars above us. Excited, we put our glasses to reveal the entire night sky beaming. The moon was so bright but it did not stop the explosion of stars. Seeing the stars in this Dark Sky Reserve was certainly on our “hope we get to see” list and we were happy to check this off.
One look outside the window and it was clear- you could not see Mt Cook. The cloud cover in that area was very dense so it was good validation that while things did go according to plan, they certainly worked out in this one.
Packed up and on the road again towards Christchurch, it was my turn the take the wheel! As some people know, my left and right’s are not the best or most reliable form of communication. For me the “LEAN LEFT” mantra would not cut it so I created my own. “DRIVER MIDDLE” so with every turn, as long as I, the driver, was in the middle of the road, I was in the right spot.
Then, we visited Fairlie Bakehouse for what is touted to be the best pies in New Zealand.
When you walk in, the smell of baked pastry fills your nose. Freshly baked and so many pie options to chose from!
I ordered the pork belly with apple sauce and crackling and Kevin ordered the bacon and salmon.
Mine was full of pepper it was difficult to enjoy at times but I could tell the flavor was good and the pastry was delicious. Kevin’s had cheese inside with what looked like an entire salmon fillet and bacon pieces. I think we ended up liking each other’s better. It was a great lunch snack before reaching our final destination. We love New Zealand pies!
With half a tank of gas, we decided to fill up and my goodness is it expensive! At about $2 to $2.20 a liter, we spent over $60 to fill up from half a tank! Yikes that is crazy but a cost that is not negotiable when road tripping. Keep that in mind if renting a hunker camper van.
Another 2.5 hours and more scenic views, we made it to Christchurch. With free parking, we went straight to the Botanic Gardens.
The Botanic Gardens are open daily to the public with free entry. The park is over 50 acres containing ten different gardens for guests to enjoy. Dropping right in the middle of the city like Central Park, there were many people on their work break relaxing. How wonderful it must be to work so close to this park and enjoy it daily.
I think we may have been off season as much of the vibrant floral we were expecting was not there, only in the beautiful flower beds they constructed.
This consumed a bit of time but since we arrived to Christchurch over half a day early, we were left with another vacancy. Thanks to Christchurch public WiFi, we made the decision to visit Little High Eatery for food.
Little High Eatery is a Reading Terminal like concept where multiple food vendors are all in the same building given guests a wide variety of options. We both ended up choosing Sushi Solider– Kevin ordered a Dragon Roll with Crispy Chicken and I ordered the Teriyaki Stir Fry Yakisoba Noodles with veggies.
Thinking we may need more food, we stopped across the way at Gre3n Juice Bar for what looked like amazing acai bowls. To our disappointment, they stop making acai bowls 30 minutes before close. We had to settle on smoothies which unfortunately only average. We took the food back to the Airbnb (“take out” is called “take away”) so we could do much needed laundry.
The drive to our Airbnb was 20 minutes from downtown and was a full home- it was nice to spread out and have real amenities- too bad our stay where would be so short. We threw in our laundry, ate our dinner which was very tasty (the noodles were great!), and sat on the couch. Kevin read and I began to blog when the heaviness of sleep over came me. It was 6PM and I was fast asleep on the couch, one sentence into blogging. I slept all night, clearly something I needed- a very exciting evening for us in Christchurch!
Awaken feeling refreshed (I better have after all that sleep!), we once again followed our routine of oatmeal, packing up, and hitting the road. Kevin had found the Copenhagen Bakery and insisted on grabbing his long black here. When we walked in, we were both amazed at the display of options!
Sweet, savory, bread, pastry, and everything in between- we could have eaten everything here. It was so hard to pick!
We ordered a custard danish, a ham and mushroom quiche, a freshly made croissant with french preserves, and a baguette for the road. The croissant was the lightest, flakiest one I can remember having and the preserves (strawberry) just elevated the entire pastry. The custard danish was well balance and not overly sweet but just enough to know there is sugar. The quiche felt necessary to get some protein but it was also very well constructed- a little mini quiche.
We could not stop looking into the glass displays to find more things we wanted to try. After Kevin finished his coffee, we continued north for another 2.5 hours to the town of Kaikoura. This journey once again stunned us with the scenery going through pin turns through the mountains then emerging onto the coast line seeing the brilliant blue water dazzling in the sun next to us.
Read more about beautiful Kaikoura!
The shift in our itinerary gave us the chance to make an earlier ferry than originally planned. Since I was unable to switch our reservations online and our phone service was not cooperating, we decided arrive to the ferry terminal early hoping they could accommodate us. With a two hour drive and a mandatory hour arrival before ferry departure time, we woke up early to get to Picton.
This early rise (5AM) meant that hopefully we would have no issues using the shared bathroom since the other two sets of tenants should still be sleeping. This bathroom had an entrance from the inside of our building and the outside of out building and we were instructed that while you need to lock both to ensure privacy, you must then also unlock both so everyone has access. One our first bathroom attempt, the inside door was locked. We gave it a firm jiggle and waited several minutes before attempting again, then again. The couple in the upstairs room had also come down to use the bathroom by that point. On a schedule, I got nervous we were going to have to forgo such an amenity. With a loud knocking sound, there was still no response from the inside of the bathroom. Kevin layered up for the cold and went around the outside where it was found someone had not unlocked both doors when finished using the bathroom. It was slightly aggravating given how instructive our host was to have guests that did not pay attention to a detail that disrupted 2/3 of the guests staying at this lovely place. Quickly using it and jumping in the car, we were on our way to the ferry.
Before we got back onto the highway, we took five minutes to see the sun coming up over the ocean horizon as it began to illuminate the water and the mountains.
We got to the Picton ferry terminal at 9AM hoping to get onto the 10:45AM ferry. I walked up to the ticket counter and while the staff mentioned how full the ferries, was able to switch us to the earlier ferry instructing us to drive the car into the check in lane. This was such a great adjustment for our schedule as we would now be gaining several hours in Wellington.
Driving the car onto the ferry was a fun ordeal- the dance of getting the vehicles (and even trains) off the ferry and the new set on was well orchestrated. Following the instructions of the crew, it was eventually our turn to drive onto the ferry.
The ferry had several parts to it once on the passenger deck. There was a lounge area that was filled with tons of couches, then a typical train/plane seating with rows and tray tables, and lastly a cafe area seating with picnic benches. It was clear that the first seats to go were once next to plugs to keep items charged for the three hour journey. Since passengers were on the ferry long before we were even able to drive the car onto the ferry, all of those seats were long gone. I really wanted to get blogging done so opted for the picnic tables- nice and uncomfortable with a surface for my computer- no chance for a nap.
Having popped my motion sickness medication roughly an hour before the departure, I was very productive in the three hour journey and felt minimal motion sickness from the bouncing of the ferry.
Before we pulled into Wellington, Kevin and I went to the front deck to see the city as we were pulling in. The Wellington Harbor surrounded the ferry and it was the first time in New Zealand we felt like we were in a major city- it is the capital after all!
I can’t believe we finished our time on the South Island that quickly- it flew by! There are so many things we missed even outside of the activities that were canceled. It is clear that a return trip for us would focus exclusively on the South Island. Things we missed include everything south of Queenstown, summit of Ben Lomond, Fiordland National Park, Mildford Sound, Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, Arthur’s Pass, Abel Tasman National Park, and Nelson for beer hops. When we return the New Zealand, we look forward to adding as many of these as possible to the list!
Onward to the adventure that awaits us on the North Island!