After a strange immigration experience at the Queenstown Airport, one that involved my girlfriend and I being interrogated in separate rooms about our online businesses, our 8-day New Zealand road trip finally began.
Yes, New Zealand would prove to be spectacular, so much so that it far exceeded every expectation, every single day. If the country, at least the south island as that was all we had time for, is not the most beautiful location on this planet, it is definitely as close to the top of that list as it gets.
And while 8 days is not sufficient time to thoroughly cover every corner of the south island of New Zealand, it is sufficient time to get a taste of what it offers, and to have an absolute ton of fun doing so.
If you’re thinking about a New Zealand road trip, here’s the details from our own adventure:
8-Day New Zealand Road Trip
Day 1: Queenstown (arrival)
- Rental car pickup – we chose Omega Car Rental and for $30 NZD per day we had a mid-size car that was a few years old but in excellent condition; Omega offered great service, convenient locations and an easy rental process
- Queenstown wander – driving straight into town, we roamed around Queenstown for an hour; the town is small, pleasant and full of activity; it’s also quite crowded and very expensive
- Accommodation – Queenstown Top 10 Holiday Park in Arthur’s Point (5 km from Queenstown); it’s an odd name but we had a comfortable small cabin in a peaceful spot surrounded by mountains; it was great value and we preferred to be among nature and not directly in town
- Arthur’s Point walk – we found a path across from our accommodation that led down to a narrow gully and we ended up on a great walk along the Shotover River (we loved this about NZ – you can find trails everywhere and most of them are empty)
- Queenstown at night – back in town, the evening vibe is worth experiencing for dinner and a sunset walk along Lake Wakatipu
Day 2: Queenstown
- Skyline Queenstown – just a couple of minutes walk from the town center, the Skyline Queenstown gondola took us up to the top of a mountain for perfect views out over the region and a chance for some fun luge-riding at the summit
- Glenorchy – a 1 hour drive along the lakeshore and we arrived in the small town of Glenorchy; it was more about the drive and the truly unbelievable landscapes than the town itself, although the Glenorchy Lagoon trail looked worth it (we had to skip it due to heavy wind and rain)
- Paradise Road – craving even more stunning scenery, after a stop in a cafe until the rain stopped, we drove along the Glenorchy-Paradise Road for another hour, heading towards Kinloch; there’s nothing specific to see or do here but we must have pulled over a dozen times just to admire the mountain views; and we pretty much had the entire road to ourselves
Day 3: Queenstown to Te Anau
- Drive to Te Anau – driving south along State Highway 6, it took us 3.5 hours to reach the town of Te Anau, the gateway to the Fjordland National Park; naturally, we found an infinite number of places to pull over along the way as the views really never get old!
- Accommodation – Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers; decent place with small, inexpensive private rooms right by the lake
- Te Anau wander – 1.5 hours is all it takes to walk along the picturesque Te Anau Lake and through the entire town, making for a good afternoon stretch after the long drive
- Early night – after dinner, we went to sleep early in preparation for the VERY long day ahead
Day 4: Te Anau to Milford Sound to Wanaka
Did I mention this will be a long day? Long but oh so worth it!
- Te Anau to Milford Sound – leaving Te Anau at 7:30am, the drive to Milford Sound only takes 2 hours, but we gave ourselves 4 in order to stop en route at Mirror Lakes, The Chasm, Eglinton Valley, Lake Gunn and Hollyford Valley; the peaceful Mirror Lakes and Eglinton Valley were our favorite stops; you also need some time to get through the one-way Homer Tunnel as you can end up waiting for up to 30 minutes to enter
- Milford Sound cruise – we arrived at Milford Sound an hour before our 2-hour Milford Sound cruise that departed the harbor at 12:30pm; this cruise needs to be done on any New Zealand road trip as I can’t recommend it enough!; we booked our cruise with Go Orange Cruises through their website the night before (see below for more details)
- Fjords – the fjords are simply spectacular and we couldn’t turn away for the entire 2 hours; waterfalls, dolphins, Mitre Peak, the Tasman Sea and endless other sights, not to mention an interesting narration from our captain the entire way
- Milford Sound to Queenstown – after the cruise, it’s time to once again pass through the impressive Homer Tunnel and begin the long journey to Wanaka, some 450 kms away; the first stage follows a familiar route back towards Queenstown for 4.5 hours; we really wanted to get going at this point and we were happy that we had made all of our stops on the way to Milford Sound in the morning
- Queenstown to Wanaka – with the second stage of this journey, from Queenstown to Wanaka (2 hours), the landscape changes dramatically; suddenly we were on a road wedged into narrow gorges, winding through rocky mountains towering all around us; if you’re there in the late afternoon/sunset time, the colors are surreal (it was my favorite part of the road trip from a driver’s perspective)
- Accommodation: Oasis Yurt Lodge – awesome, comfortable yurts in a quiet, beautiful location just outside of town; definitely the best place we stayed at and well worth checking out!
Day 5: Wanaka and surroundings
- Late morning – naturally, this was a good morning to sleep in, not just because we were in a very cool yurt but also because we were exhausted from the long journey the day before
- Wanaka town – for lunch, we went for a stroll through quaint Wanaka town and choose one of the cafes on the main strip, with views straight out over Lake Wanaka
- Hiking – it was then time to burn some calories and luckily, there are several options for an afternoon hike, depending on the amount of time you have and level of difficulty you prefer: Roy’s Peak trek, Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain, Mount Iron walk and the Rob Roy Glacier Track are some of the most popular
- Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain – we chose the Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain hike, a moderate level walk of about 3 hours return, with unsurprisingly gorgeous views along the way; we kept stopping, taking a seat on the ground and just soaking in our surroundings (see below)
- Random roads – from one of the viewpoints during the hike, we spotted a river not too far away with what looked like a beach; after the hike, we took some random roads and found the spot and it turned out to be a perfect post-hike location for a rest; this is another bonus of a New Zealand road trip – spending a few hours without following the map every now and then, just turning on to random roads, will always lead to a rewarding excursion (on this same day we also accidentally ended up on a private farm, hung out with a pony and had a great chat with the friendly owner)
Day 6: Wanaka to Franz Josef
- Wanaka to Haast – we took our time in the morning and then embarked on a relatively easy 4 hour drive, twisting around lakes, winding up over the Haast Pass and driving through rainforest, with several short walks as breaks; Thunder Creek Falls, Blue Pools and the Tunnel Hike are all worth a stop before arriving in the tiny settlement of Haast for lunch
- Haast to Fox Glacier – leaving Haast, we continued along the coast to mysterious forest-lined beaches, picturesque cliffs and nature walks through all kinds of landscapes; eventually we reached the Fox Glacier
- Fox Glacier – unfortunately, access to the Fox Glacier was closed when we were there but if it’s open, you can take the walking track that leads closer to its face
- Franz Josef town – from Fox Glacier, it’s just a short 30 minutes drive to the small community of Franz Josef, a good spot to spend a couple of nights, which is what we did
- Accommodation – Chateau Franz Backpackers; we booked a private room here because it was central, affordable and almost all the other places in town were sold out by the time we got around to booking; it wasn’t our favorite place as the rooms were quite grimy but it did the job
- Franz Josef wander – you can easily take an evening walk around the entire town, with plenty of options for dinner afterwards and a decent sized supermarket if you plan to cook on your own
- Glow worms – once darkness fell, it was time to go searching for glow worms!; at the south end of town, between the fire station and the St. James Historic Church, there’s a walking trail on the east side of the main road; we walked right in, let our eyes adjust and started looking into the trees until we spotted glow worms; in the end, we saw thousands and it was far more impressive than we imagined!
Day 7: Franz Josef Glacier
- Franz Josef Glacier – we drove the few miles to the main parking lot and then followed the walking trail towards the famous Franz Josef Glacier; the walk takes about 40 minutes each way and is quite easy as it meanders through some impressive scenery until you get a decent view of the glacier; if you want to splurge, this is probably one place to do it by taking a helicopter trip to the top where you can also go for a walk on the glacier itself; we simply enjoyed the walk and called it a day
- Lake Mapourika – in the evening, we drove 15 minutes north out to Lake Mapourika to watch the sunset and it didn’t disappoint as we found a beautiful spot to hang out right off the main road
Day 8: Franz Josef to Christchurch
- Franz Josef to Hoktika – starting at 8:00am, we began the final stages of our New Zealand road trip by traveling north 2 hours until we reached the town of Hoktika, a good place for breakfast and to fill the car up with petrol for the rest of the journey
- National Kiwi Centre – located in Hoktika, this is a sanctuary for native animals of New Zealand, including the kiwi bird; the centre was a bit rundown but the staff were wonderful and we thought it was well worth the entrance fee to catch a glimpse of the kiwis and learn more about them
- Route 73 – Arthur’s Pass – Christchurch – a short distance north of Hoktika, we turned east onto Route 73 and began the 3.5 hour, coast-to-coast journey across the mountains and Arthur’s Pass; as you can guess, there are view points, walking paths, parks, small towns and more to stop at all throughout the route
- Christchurch – just like that, we came out of the mountains and found ourselves in Christchurch, on the opposite coast from where we started our day; after a quick lunch and a wander through downtown Christchurch, we returned the rental car and took the shuttle to the Christchurch Airport; at 6:30pm we were on a flight to Sydney and our New Zealand road trip had come to an end
Yes, it was a little rushed. We could easily have spent 2 or 3 or even 4 weeks on the south island alone. But we did what we could with the time we had and, without a doubt, we absolutely loved every day of our stay. I don’t think I’ve ever been as in awe of my surroundings as I was during this trip.
And to be honest, no matter where you end up going in this remarkable country, it’s hard not to have the same reaction. Whichever route, activities and sights you choose, you shall be rewarded.
You’ll see what I’m talking about!
(I’m already looking forward to heading back for another New Zealand road trip once I get my new passport.)
ACCOMMODATION: Use this Booking.com link to save up to $30 off your booking (I’ll get up to $30 too): Booking.com $30 discount
TRANSPORTATION:: We enjoyed hiring a car but many travelers prefer to rent camper vans instead. There are all kinds of options for vans of various sizes. If you go with a camper van, here’s a good app that lists all campsites in NZ: Rankers Official Camping NZ App
MILFORD SOUND CRUISE: There are at least 6 companies running these cruises and they all have great reviews. I would go with the one that offers the best deal for the day you’ll be there. With a little research you can easily find heavily discounted tickets, even on the official websites for the cruise companies. (We paid $90 USD total for 2 people with light lunch included.) I would avoid going in the mid or late afternoon as there is a higher chance that heavy cloud cover arrives and your visibility will be greatly reduced.
COSTS: New Zealand is indeed an expensive country but there are ways to keep your costs down. Accommodation and food are pricey, but you can also stay in hostels, guesthouses or campsites and you can always cook your own food to save money. Every place we stayed at had a communal kitchen. Also, the good news is that almost all of the places I mention above do not have an entrance fee. While activities such as a Milford Sound cruise and Skyline Queenstown cost money, all of the walks, hikes, views, scenic routes, glaciers, waterfalls and other stops we made every day didn’t cost anything.
Any questions about taking a New Zealand road trip? Any input to share from your own experiences?