When we were getting prepared for our 3 week campervan trip in New Zealand last year, I did a lot of internet searching. I looked at more itineraries, travel reviews (www.rankers.co.nz), and blogs than I knew was possible. Some were more helpful than others. I like lists. I find lists easy to read. Lists force the writer to be concise and prioritize. So I decided to create a "Top 5" list of my favorite things on the South Island (I suppose I could make a list for the North Island too, but we were only there for 5 of our 22 days in New Zealand.)
Well, this list proved to be much more difficult to come up with than I anticipated. I came up with my list and then went to Allyson to hear what her list would be. In doing so, we both realized we missed a few key experiences that could not be left off the list.
Allyson suggested that instead of naming specific activities you must do or places you must go, I could group them. For example, you must kayak the waters, hike to a high peak with 360 views, drive a particularly scenic road (e.g., Haast Pass, Crown Range Road), eat fish and chips somewhere (everywhere), experience hot pools (the best pools and massage ever are on the North Island at Polynesian Spa). Ok, well there you go. If that's what you are looking for, you got it!
After much thought, here's what I've decided to do. I'm going to share my "Top 8" list. These were my (our) most amazing eight activities/experiences while we were on the South Island. Eight things that I highly recommend you do on your trip to New Zealand. But if you can't do all eight of these activities, go back to my more general list above and make sure you accomplish one of each while you are there.
I'm going to try to put them in order from "you really ought to do this" to "do this, or you might as well not go to New Zealand!"
1. Bike the wineries of Marlborough.
I read some blog when we were getting ready for the trip that said essentially "don't do things that you can do at home." Well, since we lived a good portion of our lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, we've done a lot of excellent wine tasting in beautiful Sonoma and Napa Counties. However, I am still so, so glad we went wine tasting in Blenheim (Marlborough). It just seemed like a fun activity for our honeymoon and it more than lived up to our expectations.
Rent bikes from Nigel at Wine Tours by Bike. He's wonderful and he'll help you map out a route. All bikes come with carriers for the wine you will most certainly buy and he gives you a couple bottles of water for your tour.
My favorite thing about this activity: we literally had most of the wineries to ourselves! We had lots of undivided attention from the people working at the wineries and learned a lot about the area and the wines. Compared to Napa and much of Sonoma, this was surreal. We had an absolute blast doing this. Wine tasting gets a "you ought to do this" rating rather than a "do it" because you can do it somewhere else, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it here!
2. Wake up at Nelson Lakes National Park.
Unlike most of the activities I suggest doing on my blog, this one doesn't take much effort on your part. All you have to do is wake up and be quiet. Well, I guess the effort required depends on whether you are a morning person or not. Me, I wake up with the birds right before dawn, especially when I'm camping. And this particular morning, I will never forget. I cannot describe for you the incredible music I heard this morning and I didn't think to record it. It was the most incredible thing I've ever heard, and I've heard a lot of incredible things. I'm a musician. I love music. I've been to more concerts than most. This chorus of birds echoed louder than anything I've ever heard. I believe they were Bell Birds, mostly because they sounded like church bells (hundreds of them, echoing each other, over and over). There could have been some Tuis, because it's my understanding they imitate other birds. Whatever they were, they are worth hearing.
Spend the night at Kerr Bay Campground. Wake up early to the choir of birds and then experience the sunrise over Lake Rotoiti (I didn't get much of one this particular morning, but if you are lucky I bet it's amazing). If you have time, hike Mt. Robert (9.7km loop) for great views of the Nelson Lakes area. I want to go back and spend days backpacking here!
Abel Tasman is beautiful. We should've spent more time there than we did. And because we didn't, we felt rushed. Don't do that to yourself. Give yourself at least 3 days here. I highly recommend a guided kayaking trip if you plan to go from Marahau to Anchorage, unless someone can guarantee you that the waters in the Mad Mile are calm and will stay calm. We got stuck in some crazy swells and waves and were super scared, but basically had to get the boat to Anchorage by a certain time.
I still recommend kayaking here and also hiking. It was really cool to kayak all that way and then walk back out and look out over all the water we had just paddled on. I provide more details about the trip on my original post about our kayaking/hiking Abel Tasman adventure.
4. Hike to a glacier (or on a glacier).
We planned on taking a helicopter to Franz Josef Glacier and walking on the glacier, but weather prevented this from happening. If this wasn't our honeymoon, there is no way we could have justified the cost of the helicopter trip anyway. We spent some of our day at Glacier Hot Pools, hoping the rain would give us a break long enough to at least hike to a glacier.
We lucked out! Instead of Franz Josef, we hiked to Fox Glacier. What an awesome valley! After it had been raining all day, there were little waterfalls everywhere and the mountains were so lush and green. Yes, there were quite a few people on the trail, but it didn't take away from the experience. If you've never seen a glacier, you have to see one of these on the West Coast of New Zealand. We had seen glaciers before, but never this close. I imagine it would be really awesome to be right up on top of one, but still really cool to hike to the face of one.
5. Raft the Rangitata.
This one doesn't show up in all the travel guides, but it is so worth the money and the time it takes to get to it. I love whitewater rafting and have done it several times. Northern California has some great rafting opportunities. However, this trip will be a highlight of my life for sure. I couldn't bring my camera on the river, but trust me. So awesome! See my original post for more details about the trip, Rangitata Rafting, and camping afterward.
6. Hike/Camp in Wanaka.
Don't just hike here. Live here if you can. Seriously, this is where I want to live. I love Wanaka. The drives to and from Wanaka (we came in on Haast Pass from the West Coast and continued out of Wanaka on Crown Range Road toward Arrowtown) were some of the most beautiful we were on in New Zealand.
The hike we did, Isthmus Peak, had 360 degree views. Please see my original post about Isthmus Peak before you do it. This hike was very strenuous. It was long and steep. We went to the Mt. Aspiring Visitor Centre to ask about hiking. They suggested this one, but I also remember the woman saying that the trail is sometimes closed because it is through private farm property. And after you hike in the beating sun for hours and hours, make sure you take an ice cold dip in Lake Hawea. So refreshing!
If you are going the campervan route in New Zealand, I highly recommend Lake Outlet Holiday Park. It isn't right in Wanaka, but it's right on the lake. We went for a (freezing) swim the evening we got there. It has great facilities and good staff.
7. Do something "crazy" in Queenstown.
Bungee jump. Paraglide. Go on a jet boat ride. Do something that gets the adrenaline going, because this is what Queenstown is about. Honestly, I will never paraglide again. I get motion sick and was the whole time we were paragliding. However, I am so glad I can say I did it. And in one of the coolest places ever! See more about Queenstown and paragliding at my original post.
8. Kayak Milford Sound.
Do this, or you might as well not go to New Zealand. I'm serious. This is it.
Going to Milford Sound is not enough. If you have ever been kayaking, please do yourself a favor and book the Morning Glory trip with Rosco's. They are super professional. Their boats are amazing. And kayaking the whole length of Milford Sound gives you enough time (if you are lucky) to watch the sunrise, paddle with a pod of Southern Bottlenose dolphins (They were seriously right next to us and under us. I could've touched them.), paddle under a waterfall, say hello to some seals, learn a bunch of neat facts about the area's geology and animal life, and jump off the top of the water taxi into the Tasman Sea. All before noon!