How to Spend Seven Days on New Zealand’s South Island
New Zealand is an astonishingly beautiful country with an inordinate amount of stunning natural beauty for its size. It’s no wonder that it is popular to spend a month or more backpacking through the rugged mountains on the South Island, but if you are like me, taking that amount of time away from responsibilities back home is impossible. That’s why I chose to rent a car in Christchurch and pack my itinerary to the hilt to maximize my short time on the South Island.
Day One: Christchurch
I chose to take it easy on my first day in New Zealand because I was fatigued from the twenty-four hours of flights and layovers that it took to actually get there. There is plenty to see and do around Christchurch, and a good option is to take a couple of relaxing walks at local nature reserves, Travis Wetland and Styx Mill Conservation Reserve. Both areas are peaceful, and have lakes that are excellent for bird watching, where you will find everything from elegant black swans to amusing pūkeko. In the evening, take a stroll along the shore in nearby Sumner for a calming experience, or go into downtown Christchurch and explore the city.
Day Two: Akaroa
Only and hour and a half from Christchurch, Akaroa is the perfect location for a day trip. It is a small, quiet town with French influence situated on a stunning bay. Stop into town for food and shopping, but make sure to check out some of the easy yet rewarding hikes in the area.
The Onawe track is a short walk that is only passable at low tide. This area has a volcanic past, and is also a sacred Maori site. This means that it is respectful to refrain from eating on this track
Try the Otepatotu track for another short walk with spectacular views. This track climbs up through a serene, mossy forest and eventually opens up into a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and bay.
Day Three: Castle Hill
Day three is time to head inland. Castle Hill is a bit of a detour on the way to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, but it is well worth a visit. This mountainous area is littered with massive monoliths that loom overhead, giving a sense of insignificance to passers-by. It is easy to forget about time as you explore the maze of boulders dotting the landscape, and on a weekday it is possible to have the hill practically to yourself.
Castle Hill is also a popular spot for rock climbing with endless bouldering possibilities, so make sure to pack your gear if you are a climber. If you aren’t a climber, keep an eye out and you just may see some people muscling their way up the smooth stones.
Day Four: Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is one of the biggest destinations on the South Island, and for good reason. The snow peaked mountains of the Southern Alps are unparalleled in their beauty, and the region offers endless activities for any outdoor enthusiast. Although this is a huge park where you could easily spend an entire vacation, you can still pack a lot of activity into one day if you plan accordingly.
Start with an early morning helicopter tour. There are many scenic flight options that leave from the Mount Cook Airport, but for the sake of time, I chose a twenty-five minute flight with a snow landing. Try to be on the first tour of the morning to maximize your time for hiking later in the day. You will get a briefing on helicopter safety, and then it will be time to get on board. Once the helicopter is in the air, you will have a unique bird’s eye view of the landscape. After a quick flight up into the mountains, your pilot will land the helicopter, and you will have time to get out and look at the incredible scenery from high in the mountains before the short flight back to the airport.
Once you are back on solid ground, you should have ample time left to stop at the park’s visitor center for information before setting out on one or more epic day hikes. A must-do walk is the Hooker Valley Track. This flat 10 km trek takes you over a series of three swing bridges and past glacial streams as you make your way through the Hooker Valley. Mountains surround you on three sides, and the iconic Mount Cook grows more and more prominent as you hike toward it, eventually reaching the turn around point at the ice berg-strewn Hooker Lake. This journey will take approximately three hours, but is not challenging in terms of elevation gain.
If you are up for more walking after the Hooker Valley Track, make sure to check out the Tasman Glacier area. There are a couple of tracks along the shore of Tasman Lake that will offer excellent views of the Tasman glacial tongue and the large icebergs that float in the arctic lake water. You can choose to hike up a steep but short incline for a view of the glacial tongue, or take a flat trek that will bring you up close to the lake. If you have time, I suggest taking both trails and really enjoying the scenery. Areas with glacial activity are truly unique, and worth every minute you spend appreciating their awe-inspiring grandeur.
Day Five: Te Anau
Now that you’ve been to Mount Cook, it’s time to move on towards Fiordland National Park, another epic stop on a New Zealand road trip. Before you get there, however, it is worth stopping in the town of Te Anau for a tour of the glowworm caves. This is a truly unique experience that is not to be missed. The tour starts in Te Anau, where you board a ferry that takes you across Lake Te Anau to the secluded spot where you will enter the cave. You go into the cave in small groups, and board another boat since an underground river flows through the cave. Once everyone is situated, the guide will douse the lights and you will immediately see thousands of tiny blue dots floating around and above you. Your guide will steer the boat through tight passages, making sure that everyone has plenty of time to marvel at the glowworms, which seem more like stars in a far off galaxy than larvae clinging to a damp rock inches away. There is no photography allowed on this tour, which only serves to heighten the experience, and encourages you to stay in the moment. Sitting in the dark, marveling at the glowworms with only the sound of the underground river, it is easy to be overcome by the raw beauty of the moment. It feels solitary, peaceful, and magical.
Day Six: Fiordlands National Park
Although it is also mountainous, Fiordlands National Park offers a completely different experience than Mount Cook. Set out in the morning to beat the traffic on the Milford Sound Road, which is a scenic highway that leads from Te Anau all the way up to the Milford Sound. There are plenty of places to stop and stretch your legs while admiring gorgeous scenery during this two-hour drive, just keep a look out for mischievous keas. These smart and mischievous alpine parrots are not above trying to break into your car while you have your back turned.
Once you reach Milford Sound, I highly recommend taking a fiord cruise. These are easy to book, and there are a plethora of cruise companies to choose from. If you have a Juicy, or Lucky rental car you can get a good discount on cruising with Juicy. The cruise will go through the Milford Sound all the way out to the Tasman Sea. Along the way you will see incredibly tall waterfalls flowing from the mountains that tower above your head like a fortress. If you are lucky, you may even see a pod of dolphins playing in the water, or a herd of seals basking on rocks. Make sure to dress warmly for this adventure, as certain areas of the fiord can be very windy.
If you just aren’t done adventuring once your cruise is over, there are plenty of great hikes in the park. The Key Summit Track is arguably one of Fiordland’s best day hikes. This is a 3.4 km hike that leads up to a summit that is dotted with peaceful tarns, and surrounded by amazing mountain views. This hike can be strenuous on the way up, but it is well worth the effort.
Day Seven: Dunedin, Moeraki, and Oamaru
Day seven is a journey up the east coast of the island that will eventually deposit you back in Christchurch. To break up the drive, stop in Dunedin, Moeraki, and Oamaru.
Sandfly Bay is a secluded beach in Dunedin that got its name because it is so windy that sand is constantly whipping across the beach with ridiculous force. The bay is absolutely picturesque, and is a known hang out for New Zealand fur seals, and much larger sea lions. Be sure to keep a safe distance while viewing wildlife.
As you continue north, you will be passing through Moeraki. This town is home to a strange anomaly. A series of perfectly round boulders litter the beach here. There is a small entrance fee to get onto the beach, and this is one of the most highly-trafficked tourist locations on the South Island, but it is worth a stop if you are passing through.
A final place to stretch your legs during your long drive is the Bushy Beach Scenic Reserve in Oamaru. If you are extremely lucky, you may see a rare yellow-eyed penguin from the viewing platform up on the bluffs. From there, head north to Christchurch, where you can catch your flight home (or to your next grand adventure).
This is just a small sample of the amazing beauty New Zealand has to offer. I’d love to hear your suggestions about other great locations on the South Island, so please chime in with comments!