North or South? No, I am not talking about which region in India I hail from. Which island I plan to visit if I were to say we are heading to New Zealand for a holiday. While it seems like a strange question to ask a traveler, it is a perfectly valid question for New Zealand.
25 Million Years ago a series of volcanoes and earthquakes, followed by the slow drifting of the micro-continent led to the formation of these 2 islands that together form the nation that we today know as New Zealand.
From tropical warm beaches in the north and east coast to the frigid icy blasts in the south and western parts these islands provide a plethora of choices to explore. Culture, fragile ecosystem, adventure sports, volcanoes, wildlife, the aurora there is much to choose from. No two islands can be far removed from each other in terms of anything. Yet they are essentially the same nation.
Neither island is the ‘better one’. They are both equally impressive and grand. If you want to explore both you definitely need over 3 weeks to do justice to them. Considering most of us travel with a paucity of leaves and a not so lavish budget, planning in advance surely helps. As a traveler, it all depends on what you would like to see and absorb.
For many of us a trip to such a remote destination such as New Zealand maybe just once and it is imperative to know everything before making a decision. Once you have decided which one, it is easier to decide on the places, routes, transport and stays. I feel making the island decision is critical.
In a two-part series, I list what each island of New Zealand has to offer. Read on to know which one attracts your attention more.
New Zealand South Island
In April 2018, packing our bags we decided to catch the colors of late autumn in the New Zealand South Island. Flying into Christchurch at 2 in the morning we were hit by a blast of frigid air and big droplets of ice cold water. Oh oh here goes our adventure.
Nevertheless, we were here and hoped to make the most of our 9 day holiday. Heading out towards Aoraki/Mount Cook, the tallest peak of the Southern Alps, we could barely see beyond the tail lights of the car ahead of us. Thick mist and incessant rains fogged up our windshield ever so often. What added to the thrill was we had 2 co-passengers, my husband’s parents who were visiting us. It was their first experience of New Zealand and of course, the crazy amount of driving that was in store.
Driving in New Zealand South Island is an adventure in itself. We went up and down with the high points and the low valleys, crossed streams and gorges and yet we were still 3 hours from our destination. Distances on the board and actual driving are two very different things. The roads are long, winding and extremely steep and narrow. So although the board says 250 kilometers and the speed is 100 kph in most places, you would need 5 hours to get there.
Pro Tip: Driving in New Zealand South Island, always keep an extra hour to reach your destination.
Drive to Aoraki
Forging ahead we drove along the International Dark Sky reserve towards Aoraki. The entire area is just as the name suggests. There is no light pollution and one of the best places to view the starlit sky. If one is extremely lucky they can also see the southern lights. Aurora Australis, unlike her Northern cousin, is extremely shy and difficult to spot. But she is a beauty who is more pink, yellow and violet than just green. The highway is beautiful and you can witness the starkness of nature.
Crossing Lake Tekapo, we proceeded towards Lake Pukaki. They are both huge glacial lakes and extremely blue. To reach Aoraki National Park area, where most of the basic accommodation is, you drive along the lake and farther into the mountains. I kept telling my folks in the car, that looking at the weather we can be sure of Snow when we get to Mount Cook Village. What none of us expected was to drive through a snow storm! It suddenly hit us. Big blobs of snow, just like in Disney movies. It was wonderful to drive through snow, while both sides of the road were turning in to a white velvet blanket.
What a sight when we got to the village. Super excited and chilled to the bone. We headed in for some hot food and then headed out for a long walk and some snow fight. That night snuggling into our beds we hoped the storm won’t start again.
Pro Tip: There are a few basic motels and lodges and one high-end luxury accommodation within the National Park. Book in advance especially during high season. Alternatively, stay at Lake Tekapo or Twizel.
Trek to Tasman Glacier & Lake – New Zealand South Island
Next day snow was like picture perfect postcard. Adding to it we saw mountain hares race around in early dawn. Irrespective of the weather, we decided to trek 500 meters upwards to see the Tasman Glacier and Lake. Crunching ice under our shoes (We had plain old trainers, no snow boots) and hoping that we won’t slip we climbed up the hill. Well not being able to feel your hands and feet was all worth it. The view was just incredible.
The lake was green and still. The glacier was massive and I guess in late spring you can witness the melting of ice. The lake gets its green color owing to special algae that thrive in the area. The trek would be much more comfortable to do in summer. If heading out in autumn or winter, wear sturdy boots that won’t let cold seep in.
Onwards to our next destination in New Zealand South Island, we had over 400 kilometers to drive. While it is possible to drive 400+ in the south island, with reasonable stops, I suggest splitting the journey and keep a daily limit of 250-275 kilometers. It is physically draining and fatigue can set in.
Carrying on, we moved through mountain ranges and beautiful wine producing valleys that had all collectively turned yellow and red! It was just over 7 in the evening but it felt like midnight, thanks to the rain and cold when we reached the tiny town of Te Anau, the gateway to the Fjords. After a quick hot and spicy Indian dinner at Ravi’s Indian Restaurant in the town center, we crashed.
Milford Sound and Fjords – Where Glaciers Meet the Sea
Next day was the big day. We were scheduled to go on a cruise to Milford Sound. The Sound is nothing but a narrow inlet of the sea between the steep cliffs created by glaciers as they meet the sea. A young member of the earth family, the Sound was a result of a volcanic explosion in the Pacific Ocean some 400 million years ago. The result of the explosion was under Sea Mountains being pushed to the surface. The sharp glaciers running down the sides resulted in Fjords of the South Island. An extremely fragile piece of the ecosystem, it is home to the culturally strong Pounamu (Greenstone) Jade, rare black corals, Paua Shells, fur seals, penguins, and dolphins.
We were finally greeted by sunshine on our day 3 in New Zealand South Island and that just lifted our spirits. Our boat The Milford Sovereign took us on a beautiful 90-minute journey into the fjord. We spotted fur seals and a range of native birds who call the sound home. The beautiful waterfall cascading down the sheer cliffs was the only sound audible in the Sound, apart from chattering tourists such as us.
Pro Tip: Be aware that one section of the drive is a one-way tunnel through a couple of mountains that works on a signal system. Factor in long traffic pile-ups.
Fiordland National park to Queenstown
We had reached the southernmost point of our journey. We started our drive through the Fiordland National park back towards Queenstown. A beautiful drive through farmlands and mountain passes we traversed gold and wine country. The drive along Lake Wakatipu is winding and interesting. On one side of this giant lake (Legend is that the lake is a giant, asleep) is Queenstown and on the other is Kingston. As night fell, the stars came out and tempered the sky in an array of lights. We were tempted to stop and take photos but we stuck to our schedule and made it to Queenstown by nightfall.
Queenstown – Adventure capital of New Zealand South Island
Next day was a big day for all of us. My husband was about to jump off a plane from 12000 feet. Queenstown the adventure capital of New Zealand has something to offer everyone. From Shotover jets, basically traveling on a speedboat between steep cliffs of narrow gorges to hang gliding to bungee jumping to a more sedated hot air ballooning, you can take a pick. Driving to the airfield it was fun to watch divers kit up and fly over the mountains and then pop out of the plane like popcorns.
Pro Tip: Keep a buffer day in hand; weather can change at the drop of a hat
Roaming the streets of the town we explored a few gardens, the lakefront, and souvenir shopping. We had awesome hot soup and bagel at a quaint eatery called Balls and Bangles. Onwards we went to the Gondola, the steepest in the southern hemisphere. Almost ½ a kilometer upwards, we had the most majestic views of the Crown ranges, Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown.
Lakes of New Zealand South Island
The entire nation is filled with lakes at every nook and turn. New Zealand South Island should have been named Lakeland. Anyway, the surrounds of Queenstown has many interesting ones. Day five started out at the Mirror lakes, just outside Queenstown. Named Lakes Hayes the still lake reflects the colors and things around it. One of the most serene places to witness the changing colors of nature in dramatic contrast against the snow-clad peaks of the Crown ranges.
Driving to Arrowtown we explored the old Chinese township of the Gold Rush of the 19th CE. A beautifully preserved town to explore the history of the gold rush era and the harsh conditions that men worked in. Arrowtown has many nice short walks along the town as well as the beautiful yellow trees that are aplenty along the river.
Driving through the beautiful and steep Crown range we navigated our way to Lake Wanaka. The view from the Crown Range Point halfway up the mountains is majestic. You can see the entire Wakatipu basin and the town of Queenstown as a shining jewel. The view on a clear day as ours is etched in my mind forever.
Driving on to Lake Wanaka was mostly done to tick off the extremely commercial item on our itinerary, #thatwanakatree. Basically, we drove to sight this tree jutting out of the lake. It was kind of anticlimactic. For the most photographed tree, it was a small thing and apparently a slow grower too. It has taken 70 years to grow to its current size.
Read More – 12 most beautiful lakes in India
If you are keen, on the way back you can stop by at Cardona Valley Distillery. Their Single Malt Vodka and Gin were out of the world. The owner is very passionate and has this amazing set up in place. The last tour is at 3 pm and is priced at $25. If you appreciate spirits like my FIL, then do not miss this. At Distillery entrance, you will witness an entire fence full of bras. Don’t be alarmed, you can leave one too if you have any handy. It is a controversial piece of attraction, but they did have a charity board for raising awareness about Breast cancer. I’ll leave you to it.
Christchurch – The last leg of the New Zealand South Island adventure
Embarking on the last leg of our journey we headed to Christchurch. None of us could believe that it was a week since our holiday began and the end was near. Driving through Lake Tekapo region we stopped for a cuppa and took in the sights of the lake. The placid water is such a soothing balm to fatigued travelers. If you have time on hand you could make a break in your journey here and go on long treks along the various trails in the region. We did come across interesting sights on our way to Christchurch.
Christchurch is your typical city, still being rebuilt after the catastrophic earthquake of 2011. The central square and the oldest cathedral, in tatters are a testimony to this. We explored the CBD on foot and trust me it is the best way to see the city.
Tram, Punting & Gondola
There is an old tram that would take you to all landmarks and important places (Price: $45 pp) and is essentially a hop on hop off. There is punting on the river Avon and the Gondola too each priced separately ($25-$35pp). Alternatively, you could buy a combo pass that includes the tram, punting, gondola and a guided tour of the Botanical gardens for $ 86.
Also Read – Stratford Upon Avon – the Shakespeare Town
Walking along Hagley Park we witnessed a unique procession. All dog owners with their pets were celebrating a Dog’s day out. It was amazing to see the animals and owners having such a gala time.
The Botanical gardens are a must and are extremely well laid out. Housed in Hagley Park, they are the lungs of the city. On the other side is the museum, which surprisingly is free. A beautiful collection of everything local, check it out if you are history buff like me.
If you want to experience Antarctica, inclusive of a storm, head to the Antarctic Centre next to the Airport. An amazing place that is informative and interactive. From seeing rescued penguins to standing in a -38 C snowstorm like you were in Antarctica, to taking a 4D cruise to the frozen continent it was fun. You also get to meet the Huskies. The biggest fun was to do the Hagglund drive. A military snow vehicle, it jostles you around while taking you on a route similar to ones in Antarctica. I appreciate those scientists even more, especially after the 15-minute ride.
As usual, flying back home after such an eventful holiday is always saddening. But to be honest, I am glad I reside in the southern hemisphere and flying back to explore both these islands isn’t too much of a hassle, except deciding which one.
Things to do only in New Zealand South Island:
- Adventure Sports: Be it bungee or diving from a plane. Do it here.
- Walking the glaciers and climbing mountains.
- Watch the Milky Way, southern lights, or just generally understand how small we are as compared to nature.
- Cruise the Sounds and take in the majestic Fjords. Try spotting the elusive and endangered birds of New Zealand.
- In summer, Kayak with dolphins and Penguins in the calm waters of the Fjords.
- Explore the Antarctic center, not many of us would head to Antarctica on a cruise.
This is a Guest Post by Ambika Subramanian
I am a travel enthusiast with a keen sense of planning and adventure. I have traveled extensively since I was a child with each experience being memorable and truly unique. For me, writing is an avenue to share the thoughts I have within me. Combining my love for travel and writing is something I cherish the most, hence travel blogs. Text, visuals and people get the creative me charged up. Currently based in Sydney, I am planning future explorations.