My mom and I had 13 days available to explore New Zealand. Two islands (North and South) make up the country and we wanted to see both. The South holds so many amazing destinations and we had only 7 days here… so we found ourselves racing through New Zealand’s South Island. Was it fast paced? Yes. A bit exhausting? Absolutely…. But I’m thankful we didn’t skip any of it!
We arrived at Christchurch airport in the middle of the night, caught a cab and crashed at our Airbnb. When we woke up, we rented a car and visited Willowbank Wildlife Reserve to see native creatures like the Kiwi and Kea.
From here we drove north over green rolling hills, past vineyards, and around curvy mountain roads. After passing through a couple mountain tunnels, we arrived in the coastal town of Kaikoura where our first exciting adventure awaited us.
Day 2: Swimming with Wild Dolphins in Kaikoura
I’ve always dreamed of swimming with dolphins but am opposed to their captivity so this was a fantastic experience! We met our guides with Dolphin Encounter and they set all the swimmers up with thick wetsuits, hoods, booties, snorkels, and fins. We traveled out into the ocean and came across a pod of Dusky dolphins who began jumping along side of the boat. The swimmers sat on the back of the boat and when the crew blew the whistle, we swam out toward the Dolphins. At this point, you are suppose to make silly noises and sing songs through your snorkel to spark interest in the dolphins. If you succeed, they come check you out, which luckily for us they did! It was incredible! One would swim around you, then another with her baby would pass right next to you, and out of nowhere another right below you. They came close enough that I could have touched them (which we were not allowed to do).
The guides instructed us to try to swim in circles and keep up with them to keep them entertained. If you are too boring, they swim on. Once they leave, the captain blows the horn to alert everyone that it’s time to get back on the boat so we can find another group. In total we jumped into the ocean 4 times. The first 2, the Dolphins remained interested for quite a while. The third time they quickly lost interest… And the fourth they hardly approached us at all, so that was the end. At this point my frozen toes were happy to be on deck taking pictures of the dolphins jumping in in the surrounding water.
Fully satisfied with our morning, we drove south out of Kaikoura. We followed the winding roads again and then over the flat, green farmlands that cover the central area of New Zealand. We arrived at a small town about a half hour away from Castle Hill where we relaxed at our Airbnb for the night.
Day 3: Castle Hill
We slept in a bit, then headed to Castle Hill. Castle Hill acquired its name because of the towering limestone boulders scattered along the hills, resembling the ruins of a stone castle.
The Dalai Lama named it a spiritual center of the universe while visiting the area in 2002. Once you hike behind the face of the rocks, the birds and wind are the only sounds. We were there on a rainy morning, so there was very few people to share the site with.
From here we drove all the way to Mt Cook. We took a photo detour at Lake Tekapo and arrived in time to take in the view of the mountains surrounding our hotel before night fell.
Day 4: Mt Cook
Mt Cook National Park is filled with hiking trails containing views of mountains, glaciers, and lakes. I started the morning with a run along the Hooker Valley trail.
In the early morning it was extremely foggy though, so I couldn’t see much of the mountains encompassing the trail until later in the day. This trail has 3 hanging bridges and a view of a glacier at the end. I only saw 2 of these bridges however before needing to turn back.
Later that morning we went on the Tasman Glacier View hike most of which is climbing stairs to the top of a small mountain. Along the way, there’s a view of the 3 blue lakes.
When you crest the top of the hill, a bright aqua lake containing floating icebergs comes into view. The mountains surround 3 sides and to the left is the melting Tasman glacier which creates the lake.
That afternoon we took a tour of the glacier. We explored the lake on boat where we saw the icebergs up close, tasted the glacier ice, and learned all about the glacier.
The iceburgs are steel blue in color below the water and when they turn over and make contact with the air, they begin to turn white. 20 years ago the entire lake would have been part of the glacier, and 40 years ago the glacier would have reached to the top of the steep hills now surrounding the lake.
We couldn’t get very close to the glacier as it juts out under the water and chunks could break off at any point, sometimes as big as a hotel. If a huge iceberg comes up from below, it would likely kill those above it.
Day 5: Driving to Queenstown
We began our drive down to Queenstown early in the morning. We spent a lot of time driving around the South Island, but the scenery was so beautiful that I enjoyed every minute. We passed through mountains, along lakes, rivers, gorges, and by tempting wineries. Hours later, the roads with purple wild flowers growing alongside them finally led us into Queenstown. Queenstown surrounds a large lake and has plenty of restaurants and bars to explore in the downtown area.
We ate a late lunch at the famous Ferburger’s then took the Skyrail up to see the majority of the city from above and watch some courageous people bungee jumping. Then we headed back down to have drinks in an ice bar and and to our hotel for a restful night.
Day 6: Milford Sound
We toured Fjordlands National Park and Milford Sound with Jucy. Their bus picked us up and we began the long journey. Inside the park we stopped at a few sights, which were packed with other tourists all hanging out in the light rain. According to our guide, this area receives around 9 meters of rain each year! While the rain and fog obstructed some of the views, they also led to many small waterfalls cascading down the mountain walls around us. The entire area is filled with green forests (the branches fuzzy with green moss), and flowing creeks and rivers with water bounding over large and medium rocks tempting you to take photographs.
We arrived at Milford Sound, boarded our boat and cruised the waterway. Just before we reached our furthest destination and were to turn around, the rain ceased and fog cleared. Time to capture some beautiful views and pictures of the cliffs and waterfalls. The boat pulled up so close to one of the larger falls that we were bombarded with mist and amazed by the force of wind coming from the waterfall.
Our drive out of Fjordlands National Park provided more spectacular sights as the skies were now clear. The clouds just hugged the mountains instead of shielding them entirely. If I get back to southern New Zealand, I would love a few days exploring and photographing this national park!
Day 7. Wishing we could stay longer.
I woke up wishing we could spend a few more weeks in the South Island. However, we were off to the airport to start the next phase of our New Zealand adventure: The North Island.