I’ve been to Aotearoa New Zealand a bunch of times. It’s close, fun, and affordable. I’ve been asked a couple of times by friends what they should do visiting the country, so I figured I’d jot some thoughts down here so that next time someone asks, or next time I book a holiday there, I can be suitably lazy.
I haven’t spent much time on the North Island, though I’d like to change this, and will update when I do.
I’ve spent a couple of days in the delightful Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. It reminded me a lot of Brisbane and parts of South-East Queensland in its terrain and climate, but I suspect that was just due to the time of year.
I’ve spent a grand total of about an hour in Kerikeri, so I can’t say much about it, but I’d really like to visit again and explore.
Where to begin? The South Island is absolutely the tourist destination most people begin with. From the mountains, to Fiordland, to Queenstown, it has it all. I’ve by no means done it all, but I’ve done a bunch of stuff that I’ll share here.
- St Arnaud/Pourangahau (Mount Robert)
- Lake Tekapo
- Aoraki Mount Cook
- Milford Sound
Christchurch is a beautiful city and a great place to base yourself for exploring the South Island of Aotearoa. It’s easy to get around by hiring e-scooter and e-bikes.
- Grizzly Baked Goods is great for…baked goods and coffee
- Definitely grab a bite to eat and a beer or three at The Craft Embassy. A great view from the outdoor balcony area if you can nab a table
- Hokitika Sandwich Company is worth a visit, but if you can get to Hokitika itself, that would be an even better idea.
- This is a bit of an odd one, but check out the library. It’s a remarkable building with some great stuff inside. Be sure to head to the top and check out the view from the rooftop balcony
- Sheffield Pies is out of town, but very likely on the way if you’re coming/going via Arthur’s Pass. Bloody delicious, buy a few for the road.
- Castle Hill, again, isn’t in town, but on the road from Arthur’s Pass. It’s very The Lord of The Rings and if a bunch of rocks in some rolling hills amongst the mountains are your thing, it’s truly a sight to be beheld. Lots of picnics seemed to be happening here, so maybe pack a sandwich. Take your rubbish with you!
- Stop in at Air Kaikoura and go for a whale watching scenic flight. I was fortunate to see two blue whales our the window on my flight, when I stopped staring at the mountains long enough to look down at the water. Might have to head back and do some mountain flying there one day…
- I went to Beebox after my flight and got coffee and a snack. It was late in the day, and I don’t remember it being remarkable, but it certainly wasn’t disappointing either
- “Peter Jackson’s got a plane museum, you should check it out” is about all I needed to hear. Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre was well worth a visit for any self-respecting plane nerd
- Picton isn’t short of opportunities to eat and drink, but Seamus’ Irish Bar was a great place to grab a meal and pint of Guinness after a long day’s driving, it really hit the spot. I’d go there again in a heartbeat, great atmosphere
- Leaving Picton westbound, I took the coast road to Havelock. Great views, plenty of opportunities to stop and check out the surrounds, but you wouldn’t want to do this in the wet or icy seasons without appropriate preparation
I spent a night in Nelson as a mid-point in my drive from Picton to Punakaiki. I was due for a relax so it was a fairly quiet night:
- Drinks at Kismet were an absolute delight while reading a book. Excellent spirits and cocktail menu
- Dinner at Arden was a bit of a treat. By no means cheap, but delicious and highly recommended. I went as a solo diner, and it was definitely designed with groups slightly larger than one patron in mind. I’d suggest two people so you can try more of the food options than I had the opportunity to
- Breakfast at Deville was lovely. Good menu and reasonable coffee
St Arnaud/Pourangahau (Mount Robert)
St Arnaud is a little lakeside town beneath the impressive Pourangahau/Mount Robert. In the roughly three hours it took me to hike the one of the tracks on the mountain, I went from raincoat, jumper, t-shirt, shorts, to t-shirt and shorts, and everywhere in between. It was raining one moment, blowing a gale the next, blue skies a minute later. Felt just like Melbourne! Some phenomenal views of the north of the South Island here, highly recommended. Pack food/drink/sustenance supplies ahead of time, there’s not much in St Arnaud. The drive to the parking at the base of the mountain could get a bit sketchy if it’s raining, so aiming for a nice day is a good idea.
Strava tells me 11.8 km, 749 metres gained.
- Without a doubt, Hokitika Sandwich Company. Go there, eat up, go there again, and again, and again.
- The National Kiwi Centre was certainly an experience. I can’t say I’d highly recommend it, but if you’re hellbent on seeing a Kiwi in the flesh, this is probably the best way to do it.
- Hokitika Gorge is an easy 2km walk not far from Hokitika. It’s very accessible and does not have much in the way of stairs or obstructions. I expect it would be reasonable in almost any weather. The water of the gorge changes colour depending on the recent weather. It can range from a remarkable turquoise through to the blue-grey shown in the graphic above. Its colour comes from “rock flour” which is, in the most technical of terms, little bits of rock that have been ground off by the elements from upstream
- The Treetop Walkway offers a lovely view of the forest and offers measured amounts of adrenaline if peering over high walkways is your idea of fun. If you’re not good with heights, as I’m not, you’ll probably be okay too.
Of all the places on the South Island that I’ve visited, this is by far the one I’ve told the most people about. You cannot shut me up, and I will not be silenced. Lake Tekapo is glorious. It’s part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, so if you time it right and can be there on a clear night, it is mind-blowing.
- Check out the Church of the Good Shepherd. Religious or not, it’s a quaint little building perched on this picturesque lake. Not a sight to be missed
- Climb Mount John. It’s a pretty casual hike, Strava tells me it was a little over 9km with 400ish metres of elevation. Ran into a fellow traveller from Melbourne here who joined me for the star gazing event and a walk at Aoraki Mount Cook the next day, which was a lovely chance encounter
- If you do nothing else on this page, do this one: Dark Sky Project’s Summit Experience on Mount John. Do your very best to plan this in advance to get a clear night. This was an unforgettable experience, as someone who loves the night sky, but even for someone with a passing interest, it would surely delight. Being able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye is one thing, but peering through some serious optical magic with the Observatory’s telescopes was an absolute treat.
I took this photo with my phone in the middle of town. I pointed it at the sky and clicked shoot. No trickery or editing. It’s really bloody dark there!
Aoraki Mount Cook
Not much needs to be said about this one. Mt Cook is the biggest mountain in Aotearoa. It’s really big. Check out the view from my hotel room:
- I stayed at The Hermitage which has phenomenal views overlooking the mountain. It was expensive, considering how dated the rooms were, but I didn’t really spend much time looking inside. Pay the extra to get the mountain view room, you’ll regret it if you don’t. I paid $NZD 497 for the night, breakfast included, and I don’t regret it (though I did at the time)
- I went for a couple of walks on the Hooker Valley track with a friend I met earlier at Lake Tekapo. It was spectacular to be in the foothills of such enormous terrain, and quite an easy walk. I dipped my toes in the glacial lake at the base of the glacier, not quite as keen as someone else on the walk who came prepared with swimwear and proceeded to submerge themselves.
- The Tasman Glacier trail is also worth a look
Adventure capital etc. etc., Queenstown is lovely. Flying in and out of Queenstown is worth the price of admission alone. A wonderful approach amongst the mountains as you descend either over Lake Wakatipu or through the hills, it’s definitely worth the window seat.
- Walk the hill. Not super challenging, but the views are top notch. There are heaps of other walks in the area too, if you can find time
- Eat at Fergburger. Allow some time between ordering and eating, depending on your time of year and appetite – the wait can be considerable. Worth it though
- Head to Perky’s for a novelty floating bar. A helpful place to pass the time while you wait for your Fergberger order to be filled
- Indulge at Onsen Hot pools. Great for a relax and to finish off a day in town
- Head up the gondola for a great view of town and the lake, then head down the luge or zipline
- Get out of Queenstown and visit the nearby Arrowtown and Glenorchy. There’s plenty to keep you entertained in both, away from the hustle and bustle of Queenstown
This one should need much selling, but it’s well worth doing at least once. Dolphins, seals, rain, sunshine, fog, mist, it has it all. If I can give one piece of advice; catch the bus. It’s a fair hike (~4 hours drive) from Queenstown and it’s a stunning drive. Catch the bus so you can (a) relax and (b) stare out the window the entire time. You could stay in Te Anau for a shorter commute, but either way, I’d still recommend the bus.
A relatively short drive from Queenstown, Wānaka is is similarly spectacular and worthy of a visit. There’s plenty to do in town and on the nearby lakes. My kinds of things:
- Go for a guided paddle of Lake Wānaka
- Warbirds over Wanaka is the air show in Aotearoa New Zealand. If you can get there for this, do it.
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