I’ve always heard so many good things about New Zealand’s South Island and this February, we were finally able to experience it for ourselves!
You guys are always asking for an itinerary format for our trips so I thought I’d organise our travel guide differently this time and share our day to day itinerary in NZ. Itineraries are often difficult and not as useful as it seems to share as I plan ours depending on the weather, day of the week and other personal preferences and in the end, despite all the planning we spend 80% of the time not following it due to rainy days, lack of time or whatever the reason my be. However for New Zealand, our itinerary was pretty simple and so we actually ended up following it quite well!
I hope you find some inspiration here in planning your own NZ trip.
Before I begin, a few things about our trip:
- This is a round trip starting and ending in Christchurch
- This trip was taken in February 2018
- It was just the two of us travelling (Tom – my partner and I)
- Whilst our camper was certified self contained for freedom camping, we chose to stay mainly at holiday parks with powered campsites.
Hope you enjoy!
DAY 1 – ARRIVAL, CHRISTCHURCH TO HOKITIKA
Arrive in Christchurch in the morning. Pick up a SIM card at the airport. Spark and Vodafone are the main companies here and it costs about $29 for 1GB of data and $49 for 3GB of data for both companies. Once done, it’s time to pick up your camper! We booked a JUCY Condo with JUCY NZ who have a free shuttle that takes you to their Christchurch airport office.
I’ll write more about our camper van experience and camping tips in a separate post!
After you pick up your camper, stock up on some groceries! There’s a Countdown supermarket (NZ’s Woolworths) right outside the airport so if you’ve picked up your camper nearby, it’s a great short drive for you to start getting used to your vehicle.
Drive – Christchurch to Castle Hill (1 hr 30 min)
Stop at Castle Hill Rocks for a stretch and rest. Castle Hill Rocks is a 10 minute walk from the carpark – a field of limestone boulders popular with rockclimbers. If you follow the footpath up the steep hill you’ll end up at the top of some huge boulders and a great view of the mountains surrounding it. Allow 15-45 min here, depending on how much you want to see. There’s a couple of (drop) toilets at the carpark if you need as well.
Drive – Castle Hill to Arthur’s Pass Village (45 min)
Here we’ll stop off for lunch and to visit the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls. The walk to the falls is just over an hour return but it might take longer as you marvel at the beautiful landscape before your eyes. It was our real first taste of NZ here so we took our time appreciating the stunning scenery before us.
If you have extra time up your sleeve, you can check out the longer Bealy Spur Walk.
Drive – Arthur’s Pass Village to Hokitika (2 hr)
We’ll end a pretty big Day 1 at the coastal town of Hokitika. Head to Dulcies Takeaways for dinner – the coastal towns here are known for their fish and chip shops. We ordered a couple of their burgers, mussels and scallops – yumm! – and ate by the lake opposite the shop. Do note they take cash only (from memory!) so have some NZ dollars handy. Hokitika also has a supermarket and numerous petrol stations – make sure to fill up because you’ll soon start to see that petrol stations on the road are few and far between.
Overnight at: Hokitika Holiday Park
Our first holiday park experience in NZ was great at Hokitika Holiday Park – the powered campsite car parks were spacious with plenty of privacy. The shower facilities were spacious and clean as well. Bonus was the fact that you had almost uninterrupted views of the sunrise and sunset which made staying here feel like a really nice escape from the busy city life.
DAY 2 – HOKITIKA TO FOX GLACIER
Drive: Hokitika to Hokitika Gorge (40 min)
We’re heading to Hokitika’s main attraction today – Hokitika Gorge! It’s about a 40 min drive to Hokitika Gorge here via narrow back roads. Once you reach the Gorge, there will be a small carpark next to the start of the track. The track here is a short and easy walk taking you across a swing bridge which gives you amazing views of the gorge from up above. Hokitika Gorge is famous because of the blue water but do note that if it’s been raining, the water will appear less blue. Also, absolutely bring your insect repellent and douse yourself in it thoroughly because there are sandflies everywhere and you’ll get attacked if you don’t. You’ll likely spend around 1hr-2hrs here, depending on how slow you like to travel.
Drive: Hokitika Gorge to Franz Josef Glacier (2 hr 20 min)
From Hokitika Gorge, we’ll be embarking on a longish drive to Franz Josef Glacier. At Franz Josef Glacier, tourists typically go with one of three options to experience the glacier itself.
- Helicopter flight with ice walk
- Ice-climbing experience
- Valley walk (either guided or self-guided)
The two main companies that offer tours in the area are Franz Josef Glacier Guides and The Helicopter Line. Note – for the helicopter tours, the companies will only operate if the weather is good so if you do book one and the weather is bad, your tour will be cancelled on the day. On the day we were at Franz Josef, the weather wasn’t good enough to fly (in fact, we arrived a day after a massive ex-cyclone had hit the area) so we didn’t miss out on much for not booking.
If you just want to do a free activity, then you can embark on the valley walk yourself, which is what we did. Unfortunately due to the weather, half of the valley walk was also closed so we were only able to view the glacier from one of the half-way viewpoints. It was spectacular nevertheless, as this was the first glacier we saw on the trip! However, the glaciers we ended up seeing later on during our trip were even more better.
Drive: Franz Josef Glacier to Fox Glacier (30 min)
If you’ve done some initial research on NZ, you’ll know that there are two main glaciers on the West Coast – Franz Josef and Fox. One thing that I pondered when researching our holiday was whether we should visit both and how were they different. Here’s a basic summary of what I ended up finding out.
- Franz Josef Glacier is the more popular one to visit as the town centre there is much bigger with more accommodation, more shops and more tours. Fox Glacier on the other hand has a tiny town centre and it is also much more quiet there.
- Fox Glacier has views of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, and it is also where Lake Matheson is – a lake where you can see Mt Cook in the background.
- Both glaciers have walking tracks where you can visit the glacier by foot.
We decided to add Fox Glacier to the trip because I wanted to visit Lake Matheson and plus, it’s along the way anyway so there was no detour needed. Unfortunately again due to the wild weather during our visit, there was no power in the town, the glacier track and road was closed so we were unable to visit the glacier and a huge dark cloud loomed low the sky delivering short bursts of rain, meaning that our visit to Lake Matheson didn’t quite eventuate. However, if you do catch better weather, then you can go ahead and visit the glacier and lake. Instead, we arrived early at the only campsite that was open but with no power – Fox Glacier Lodge.
Overnight at: Fox Glacier Lodge
We’re glad there was one campsite open because otherwise we’d have to drive back to Franz Josef Glacier! This holiday park stayed open however they had no power at the time so some of the facilities could not be used. The Holiday Park however is typical with a kitchen block, outdoor BBQs, laundry and unisex toilet/shower block. The spots here aren’t allocated though, so you just park anywhere and if you do leave your spot, you’ll have to either find a way to ‘reserve’ it whilst you’re gone or find a new one when you come back.
Sorry, no pictures to share of Fox Glacier because the weather was that bad!
Day 3: Fox Glacier to Wanaka
Drive: Fox Glacier to Thunder Creek Falls (2 hrs)
Our destination of the day is to head to Wanaka but there are a couple of stopovers along the way that are worth checking out. The first is Thunder Creek Falls.
*Make sure you fill up your petrol tank before leaving Fox Glacier though because there is no petrol station until you arrive at Haast* – The most terrifying moment of our road trip, realising that and running on a near empty tank.
Thunder Creek Falls is a 10 min walk from the carpark to the lookout point. It’s an easy and quick stopover – more of a lookout along the road. The parking is minimal, most cars just pull off at the side of the road – there are safe spots where you can park. You’ll likely only spend 15 minutes there.
From Thunder Creek Falls to Blue Pools, there is also another lookout you can stop at – Fantail Falls (a smaller waterfall). If you love waterfalls, then check this one out for the sake of it (it’s a 2 min walk from the carpark) but otherwise, it’s really just another waterfall!
Drive: Thunder Creek Falls to Blue Pools (13 min)
A few quick minutes on the road will take you to Blue Pools – a place that reminds me of Hokitika Gorge but is more popular due to its proximity from Wanaka. The carpark is big and to the side of the road, however it often overflows onto road-side parking.
The track at Blue Pools is an easy 15 minute walk across swinging bridges and into a turquoise wonderland. Because of the wet and bad weather though, our visit to Blue Pools wasn’t as blue as it would typically be, as the rainwater dilutes away the blue hue it typically has when the weather has been dry. So we weren’t as impressed at it compared to seeing Hokitika Gorge. But I hear when it’s nice, it’s really nice here and that the water is even good for swimming! Blue Pools seems to me like a great spot to stop over for lunch on the road and to chill out. Kind of like an inland beach park, in my mind.
Make sure you bring inspect repellent – there are heaps of sand flies here as well. Depending on the weather, you could spend a couple of hours here if you want to chill out.
Drive: Blue Pools to Wanaka (1 hr)
From Blue Pools, it’s time to head to Wanaka. Get ready guys, this is going to be one of the most scenic drives of your trip so far. From Blue Pools to Wanaka, you’ll first drive past the tail end of Lake Wanaka, before looping around Lake Hawea and then passing by Lake Wanaka again until you reach Wanaka town. If you’re following this itinerary, it will be the first time you’ll see a blue lake and man, it has got to be the bluest blue we had ever seen. I was taking photos left right and centre non-stop. There are a zillion lookouts you can pull over at but if you are coming from Blue Pools, these will all be on the right side of the road making it quite hard to pull over safely. I’d suggest saving these lookouts for a separate drive later on, so that it is easier to pull over.
Arrive at Wanaka – probably the biggest town you’ll have seen in NZ so far. Gosh it’s absolutely bustling in Wanaka – it feels like a tourist hotspot filled with cafes, shops, supermarkets, restaurants, activities and more. It’s a good place to stock up on things and bits and bobs – there’s even a camera shop here!
Overnight: Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park
Probably the best holiday park of our entire trip in NZ – Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park had a huge and comfy kitchen here, all the campsites were reserved spots so you could go and return as you please. The biggest drawcard for me was the fact that the showers and toilets were SO clean and spacious, was heated and had music playing no matter the hour. I felt so comfortable showering there (major important factor) and they also had a couple of hairdryers too. There’s also a spa there – $5 per entry, kids playground and laundry ($3 for laundry, $4 for drying). The other thing I absolutely loved about the park was just how friendly the staff were and how knowledgable they were of the area and the local activities. They knew everything about the hikes in the area which was really helpful for us. We stayed three nights here whilst exploring Wanaka.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 coming up next with everything you need to see and do in Wanaka!