Preparing For Your New Zealand Adventure

Time of year: October to March
Getting there: Fly into Queenstown (South Island) via Auckland (it makes leaving NZ from Auckland (North Island) directly super easy!)
Getting around: A vehicle (car or camper), Intercity Bus, Relocation Cars, or hitchhiking
Lodging: Campsites, BnB's, Hostels, AirBnB's

Day 1 QUEENSTOWN

After arriving to your incredible first destination in New Zealand, opt to get the blood flowing with one of the options listed and go for a scenic drive to see some jaw-dropping spots.

Get a view from above with the following options.
Option 1: Hike the Ben Lomond Track (3-4 hours to the Saddle, 6-8 hours to the Summit), the best view overlooking Queenstown. I was fortunate to do it just after a snow fall and it was spectacular, but it also prevented me from doing the full summit. The track begins either from the top of the Skyline Gondola or the Tiki Trail starting at the top of Brecon Street if you want to skip the gondola ride.
Option 2: Hike Queenstown Hill (2-3 hours), a more moderate hike for your first day! 
Option 3: Take the Skyline Gondola to the observation deck. A fun activity at the top is luging!

Go for a scenic drive stopping to see Shotover Canyon, Remarkables Road, and Coronet Peak (best at golden hour)! 

With any extra time or before you find your dinner spot, enjoy a walk along the waterfront and the Queenstown Gardens.

Food and Lodging

Food: (all have vegan/vegetarian options)
1. Bespoke Kitchen- popular breakfast/lunch spot. 
2. Rehab- healthy spot for juices, smoothies, salads, and bowls. 
3. Yonder- excellent cafe by day and lodge/restaurant by night.
4. Halo- serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

Lodging:
Budget:
1. Tahuna Pod Hostel
2. Haka Lodge Backpackers
3. YHA Queenstown Lakefront
Moderate:
1. Novotel Queenstown Lakeside
High-end:
1. The Rees Hotel and Luxury Apartments

Rainy Weather Alternatives

1. Onsen Hot Pools: Go for a relaxing soak with a view. Make a reservation in advance if the weather looks formidable! 
2. Canyoning: An adventurous way to brave stormy weather is by climbing inside caves, sliding down waterfalls, and jumping into canyons. These trips are popular so check times in advance. 

Day 2 MILFORD SOUND VIA TE ANAU

Add-On 1 ADDITIONAL NIGHT IN MILFORD SOUND

Day 3 ARROWTOWN VIA MILFORD SOUND ROAD

Add-On 2 BACKPACK MILFORD TRACK

The Details

By far the most popular track in New Zealand (book in January to get a bunk at the two backcountry huts), this 53.5 km one-way track will show off the best Fjordland has to offer with steep mountains surrounding the incredible valley, beautiful rainforests, and a scenic view at the top of Mackinnon Pass.

Note! Booking transport to the trailhead is required. Cruise Te Anau, Trips and Tramps, and Fiordland Adventures offer this service. I used Cruise Te Anau and it costed $190.

If you opt to go outside the Great Walk Season (either mid October or early May), you do not need to book the huts in advance and can simply purchase backcountry hut passes ($15 per night per person). This is how I was able to complete the walk and highly recommend it! Note that renting a locator beacon is required for trekking outside of Great Walk Season.

Day 1: 
Your pre-arranged transport with either pick you up from town in Te Anau or meet you at Te Anau Downs, where the 27 km boat journey begins to the trailhead (at Glade Wharf).

From the Glade Wharf trailhead, walk to Minter Hut (the second hut on the track) (21 km, 7-7.5 hours).

Day 2:
Walk from Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut (14 km, 6-7 hours). 
Optional side trip to Sutherland Falls (1.5 hours return). 

Day 3: 
Walk from Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point (18 km, 5.5-6 hours). Be mindful of time since a boat will be taking you from Sandfly Point to where bus transport is arranged to bring you back to Te Anau Downs and/or the town of Te Anau. 

Add-On 3 BACKPACK KEPLER TRACK

The Details

A 60 km loop track starting from the town of Te Anau with incredible ridge lines, panoramic views of Lake Te Anau, and great opportunities for Kea spotting (the only alpine pam rrot in the world).  

Note! This hike is extremely weather dependent. Check rain and wind forecasts since mountain conditions can make any weather much more extreme. 

Also, the ability to camp on this hike allows for more flexibility in reserving this Great Walk since campsites are usually available.

Tips and Notes:

  • If getting a few days of good weather in a row seems to be a challenge, try to arrange things so that the best weather day falls on day 2: the hike between Luxmore Hut and Iris Burn Hut (the first and second huts).

  • Despite being a loop track, there were many variations to the track! People began from either the Kepler Track carpark, the Rainbow Reach carpark, or the town of Te Anau.

If camping:
Day 1: 
Either begin from town (10.6 km, 2 hours), the Kepler carpark (5.6 km, 1.5 hours), or the Rainbow Reach carpark (15.1 km, 4-5 hours) and walk to the Brod Bay campsite.

Day 2: 
Walk from Brod Bay to Iris Burn Hut/campsite (22.8 km, 8.5-10.5 hours). Make sure the weather is best for this day. 

After 3.5- 4.5 hours (8.2 km), you will get to Luxmore Hut (a great place for a snack after the toughest part of the day). Lunch is best from the Luxmore Summit, which you will reach after passing Luxmore Hut and by taking a 30 minute (return) worthwhile side-trip. 

Day 3:
Walk from Iris Burn Hut/campsite to the Rainbow Reach carpark (22.2 km, 6.5-8 hours). If you parked at Rainbow Reach on day 1, you have reached your car! If not, you either have another 9.5 km (2.5-3.5 hours) to the Kepler car park or can have a prearranged shuttle take you back to the Kepler carpark. I was able to hitchhike back with some hikers I met back to the town of Te Anau and I'd highly recommend that as well!

If staying in huts:
Day 1:
Either begin from town (18.8 km, 6 hours), the Kepler carpark (13.8 km, 5.5 hours), or the Rainbow Reach carpark (23.3 km, 8-9 hours) and walk to Luxmore Hut

Day 2:
Walk from Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut (14.6 km, 5-6 hours). Make sure the weather is best for this day. Lunch is best from the Luxmore Summit, which you will reach by taking a 30 minute (return) worthwhile side-trip.

Day 3: 
Walk from Iris Burn Hut to the Rainbow Reach carpark (22.2 km, 6.5-8 hours). If you parked at Rainbow Reach on day 1, you have reached your car! If not, you either have another 9.5 km (2.5-3.5 hours) to the Kepler car park or can have a prearranged shuttle take you back to the Kepler carpark. I was able to hitchhike back with some hikers I met back to the town of Te Anau and I'd highly recommend that as well!

Add-On 4 BACKPACK ROUTEBURN TRACK

The Details

One of the top Great Walks, the 32 km one-way track has spectacular vistas and stunning lakes.

Completing the track is challenging due to generally opening later in the season (mid November) due to snow/avalanche risk, the challenge of reserving the huts or campsites once it is finally open, and the track transport decisions! 

I completed the full Routeburn track, but it was not without complications. Although I got incredible weather, the snow fall in the middle of Spring closed the route down the day I was supposed to start (and that was just after it finally opened). They rescheduled me, but let me know that I would have to pay for a helicopter over the pass ($95) in the case that the avalanche risk was still a concern. Unfortunately, I missed quite a bit of the track due to needing to take the helicopter (I may be the only person in the world disappointed with the outcome, but the helicopter ride was SO short)! 

A tip I have to avoid the expensive track transport back to your vehicle is to spend all nights at the fantastic Lake Mackenzie campsite/hut and day hike the saddle as follows:

Day 1:
Begin at The Divide on the Milford Highway. Hike 12 km (4-5.5 hours) to the Lake Mackenzie Hut/campsite. 
Optional side trip to Key Summit (1-1.5 hours).

Day 2: 
Day hike up to the Harris Saddle, the highest point, and a little ways down for beautiful views before returning back to Lake Mackenzie for a second night or to pack up and exit the way you came. (This option makes it easier to book since you need just one night at either the Lake Mackenzie campsite/hut. 

If you wish to do the full track, begin from The Divide on the Milford Highway, stay at Lake Mackenzie hut/campsite the first night, and either _____ or ______ the second night. You can then exit the trail and take a prearranged shuttle back to your car OR hike part of the Greenstone-Caples track to get back to you car, adding on 1-2 additional nights. 

Add-On 5 DAY OR OVERNIGHT ON THE WATER IN FIORDLAND

Add-On 6 ADDITIONAL DAY IN QUEENSTOWN

Add-On 7 GLENORCHY AND MOKE LAKE

Add-On 8 BACKPACK GREENSTONE CAPLES TRACK

The Details

Add-On 9 NUGGET POINT AND THE CATLINS

The Details

The southern part of the South Island feels so quiet compared to the busy Great Walks and bustling towns of Queenstown and Wanaka, mainly because tourist busses don't service this area! This area will have you waterfall chasing by day and lighthouse hopping by night (and really early morning for those sunrise shots)!

Day 1:
Drive to Nugget Point in the Catlins (x hours from Queenstown) and take the short walk to the lighthouse. Try to time is to enjoy a beautiful sunset here. (Ideally, sunset is enjoyed 'from above' by taking a little trail that is worn and marked with a 'be cautious' sign). 

Day 2:
Get up bright and early to enjoy sunrise from Nugget Point. (Both sunset and sunrise offer a different experience).

See all the waterfalls: Mclean falls, ____,___. 
Stop at Gypsea _____ for a bite to eat or a coffee (check in advance that they are open) and to explore their quirky converted bus turned into a neat shop!

Continue your drive to the southern tip of the South Island, stopping at Curio Bay, a beautiful seaside spot where you can swim with dolphins in the wild! The bay is home to ___ ___dophins that enjoy surfing the waves and will come up close to check you out (only requiring you to go as far as your waist). Some tips from other travellers is to go in groups, tap the rocks together underwater (they will be curious), and to go in on a paddle board or kayak that you can rent off the beach. 

This is a fantastic place to set up camp, but before you call it a night, head to ____ lighthouse (if you haven't had enough lighthouses) for sunset. 

Day 3: 
Drive back to Queenstown (x hours). 

Day 4-5 WANAKA VIA ARROWTOWN

Wanaka and Arrowtown are my two favorite New Zealand towns! Despite being just a couple streets long, Arrowtown provides lots to explore with the most amazing restaurants and coffee shops, the FRIENDLIEST and kindest people, and cute little shops. Wanaka can get as busy as Queenstown, but maintains a relaxing, local vibe. 

On your way to Wanaka, stop in Arrowtown (a 20 minute drive from Queenstown) for a bite to eat and to explore the tiny town!

I'd recommend stopping at Provisions to sit outside in their garden over a coffee before walking up Buckingham Street to Dudley's Cottage and the Chinese Settlement. You can continue further for a walk along the river before walking down Ramshaw Lane which will bring you to my favorite restaurant in New Zealand, Settlers! Have a vegan pulled pork for me!

From there, head to Lake Hayes, before continuing to Wanaka (about 50 minutes).

In Wanaka, walk along the lake to 'That Wanaka Tree', a fence post that grew into a beautiful tree over 75+ years! You can continue along the path to Glendhu Bay or as far as you want until you find a place to take a dip or opt to kayak to Glendhu Bay or to some beautiful islands that dot the lake instead!

IDEALLY, you would start the hike up to the famous Roy's Peak once the afternoon heat has died down and after the crowds have disappeared, camping at the top to get both sunset and sunrise. If camping isn't your thing, seeing sunrise and beating the crowds and heat makes the hike up Roy's Peak for sunrise (meaning a 3am start at least) worth it (I promise)! If you opt for the latter, seeing sunset for your first day at the Wanaka Tree will make for some great shots (and I can guarantee you won't be the only one)!

Whether you camped or not, your second day in Wanaka will be spent either hiking down Roy's Peak or doing the whole hike. The local way to spend the remaining part of the day is at the lake: swimming, kayaking, or boating; while the tourist option is to go canyoning, wine tasting (Rippon is a favorite), or to the lavender farm! 

Food and Lodging

Food: (in Arrowtown):
1. Settlers- AMAZING food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My personal favorite was the Vegan Pulled Pork made with Jackfruit!
2. Provisions- The place to grab a coffee, breakfast, lunch, and freshly baked bread!
3. Fan-Tan- Great asian-fusion restaurant for lunch and dinner. 

(in Wanaka):
1. Big Fig- Fill a plate with DELICIOUS pre-made dishes of your choosing!
2. Kai- Their patio is the place to be and they have vegan pizza!
3. Soul Food- Smoothie shop with healthy breakfast and lunch options. 
4. Amigos- Great tacos for $5 during happy hour!
5. Jack Rabbit- A tad more upscale (also with vegan pizza). 
6. Food trucks on ___ street- Something for everyone!

Lodging (in Wanaka):
Budget: YHA Wanaka Lakefront
Moderate: Edgewater Hotel
High End: Lakeside Apartments
 

Rainy Weather Alternatives

1. Rippon Winery
2. Canyoning
3. Lavender Farm- Seasonal (_____-February)
4. Puzzling World

Add-On 10 OVERNIGHT ON CASCADE SADDLE OR THE FULL REES-DART TRACK

The Details

This is a beautiful track with so much to see- valleys, ridge lines, glaciers, etc! The only challenge is to get enough days of good weather! With one to two days, you can hike to the Aspiring Hut and day hike the Cascade Saddle. With three or more days, you can complete the full Rees-Dart track.

To overnight on the Cascade Saddle:
Drive from Wanaka to Raspberry Car park (about 1 hour). Note that this drive shouldn't be done after heavy rain since the water levels of the stream crossings will be too risky for some cars.

Walk 2 hours to Aspiring Hut (an Alpine Club of New Zealand Hut, reserve ahead of time or pay credit/cash at the hut). Hike up to the Cascade Saddle and back to the Aspiring Hut as a day hike on whichever day has the clearest weather. Any rain will make the hike down back to the hut dangerous so do not risk it. Walk back to Raspberry Car park.

For the full Rees-Dart track:
Drive from Wanaka to Raspberry Car park (about 1 hour). Note that this drive shouldn't be done after heavy rain since the water levels of the stream crossings will be too risky for some cars.

.......

Day 6-7 MOUNT COOK

Hopefully, you can get two days of good weather in a row in Mount Cook (although it is rare) and enjoy incredible views from high above the valley on a hike to Mueller Hut (staying the night is optional, but recommended!).

In Mount Cook, drive to the Kicking Horse Campground, which is also the trailhead for the Hooker Valley Track.

Hike Hooker Valley at it's best light, which is late afternoon and/or sunset. 

Start your second day in Mount Cook with a sunrise or morning hike to Tasman Lake (following signs for Tasman River). 
It is also a short walk up to the Tasman Glacier viewpoint by taking the other route when the trail splits.

Hike up to Sealy Tarns for a mild day hike, or further to Mueller Hut for a more intense hike. Although, I highly recommend making it an overnight trip by staying at Mueller Hut (book a bed in advance for $40) or camping (no booking, payment, or reservation required, although weather dependent since it is exposed!).

Once at Mueller Hut, walking 1 hour roundtrip to Mt Ollivier. Is well worth the effort, especially for sunset. 

Food and Lodging

Food is scarce in Mount Cook (just 2 restaurants, a cafe, and no grocery store). I recommend grabbing a bite to eat and any necessary groceries on your way in Twizel since it had good options.

Food:
(in Twizel):
1. Hydro Cafe
2. Poppies Cafe

(in Mount Cook):

Rainy Weather Alternatives

Postpone Mount Cook for when there is better weather. Either spend an additional day in Wanaka, doing one of the Rainy Weather Alternatives there or make your way to Tekapo (Add-On 11). It may be the case that Wanaka and Tekapo will have beautiful weather since Mount Cook usually gets the worst of it.

Add-On 11 OVERNIGHT AT SEFTON BIVVY OR TWO NIGHTS FOR BALL PASS ROUTE

Add-On 12 LAKE TEKAPO

The Details

If the Lupins are in bloom (end of November till beginning of January), Tekapo is not optional! They completely transform the landscape, as this region has amazingly dense pockets of these "weeds". At other times of the year, Tekapo can still entice you with a drive or loop hike to the Observatory and cafe with a view, a bike ride to explore the area, or to capture the milky way above the Church of the Good Shepard (a photographer favorite). 

Option 1: Hike the loop ....
Option 2: Bike....

Optional (photography):
Sunrise and astro photography from the Church of the Good Shepard (the best time of year for this is up to November and anytime from February on to capture the Milky Way at it's brightest). 
Sunset at one of the lupin fields. 

WEST COAST BEGINS

Add-On 13 BACKPACK GILLESPIE TRACK

The Details

Add-On 14 OVERNIGHT AT BREWSTER HUT

The Details

Add-On 15 OVERNIGHT ON COPELAND TRACK AT WELCOME FLATS HUT

Day 8 FOX GLACIER- STOP AT THUNDER FALLS, 25 MI CREEK SECRET SPOT, BLUE POOLS, LAKE HAWEA, AND DO LAKE MATHESON

RECCOMEND AN EXTRA NIGHT HERE TO GET IT RIGHT IF POSSIBLE 

Day 9 HOKITIKA

Add-On 16 ARTHURS PASS+ ALL THE HIKES HERE. 

The Details

Day 10 NELSON LAKES NATIONAL PARK- OVERNIGHT AT ANGELUS HUT

Add-On 17 BACKPACK TRAVERSE-SABINE

Add-On 18 farriki beach

The Details

Add-On 19 ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK

The Details

Day 1 ARRIVE IN CHRISTCHURCH + DRIVE TO MT COOK VIA LAKE TEKAPO

With about 4.5 hours of driving, you will see a massive amount of beauty. The biggest recommendation I have is to be flexible depending on the weather. If the weather is overcast/rainy, cut the day short because this drive deserves to be experienced in good weather. A good place to stop early would be Lake Tekapo (a 3 hour drive from Christchurch). 

Arrive in Christchurch and drive 3 hours to Lake Tekapo. The Tekapo area is famous for the massive amount of Lupins that will bloom for 6 weeks starting in December (or late November) so if you happen to be coming at this time, really consider taking advantage of Add-On 1, which keeps you in Tekapo for the first night so you have the time to enjoy these flowers. IF you are ending your trip in December, I'd recommend looping back before your flight to see how much they can transform the landscape!

In Tekapo, take a scenic drive to the Observatory and Astro Cafe. If the lupins are in bloom, there is a shed that is famously surrounded by them on the way there (see Add-On 1 for photos) along with incredible views of the lake from above. 

After leaving Tekapo, stop at the Twizle Visitor Centre viewpoint and Peter's Lookout for great views of Lake Pukaki.

In Mount Cook, drive to the Kicking Horse Campground, which is also the trailhead for the Hooker Valley Track.

Hike Hooker Valley at it's best light, which is late afternoon and/or sunset. 

Rainy day alternative

Postpone Mount Cook for when there is better weather. Although it fits best when done on the way from Christchurch to Wanaka, you can continue on as the itinerary and then fit it back in at some point from Wanaka. Instead, opt to spend the first night in Tekapo and do Add-on 1 as your first day or continue on to Wanaka on your first day (5.5 hours), depending on your interest in the Tekapo area and your timing. 

Lodging and Food

Food is scarce in Mount Cook (just 2 restaurants and a cafe and no grocery store). I recommend grabbing a bite to eat in either Tekapo or Twizel, as I found them to both have good food options and grabbing groceries from there as well. 

Add-On 1 Spend a Night in Tekapo

Whether because the lupins are in bloom or you arrive to Christchurch later in the day, Lake Tekapo is a great place to spend your first night. Enjoy a drive or loop hike to the Observatory and Cafe with excellent views above Tekapo, seeing the Milky Way and bright stars above the Church of the Good Shepard, or a scenic bike ride or drive to explore the area. 

Option 1: Hike the loop ....
Option 2: Bike....

Optional (photography):
Sunrise and astro photography from the Church of the Good Shepard (the best time of year for this is up to November and anytime from February on to capture the Milky Way at it's brightest). 
Sunset at one of the lupin fields. 

Day 2 MT COOK

Hopefully, you can get two days of good weather in a row in Mount Cook (although it is rare) and enjoy incredible views from high above the valley on a hike to Mueller Hut (staying the night is optional, but recommended!).

Sunrise or morning hike to Tasman Lake by following signs for Tasman River. 
It is also a short walk up to the Tasman Glacier viewpoint by taking the other way when the trail splits.

Hike up to Sealy Tarns for a mild day hike, or further to Mueller Hut for a more intense hike. Although, I highly recommend making it an overnight trip by either camping (no booking, payment, or reservation required), although weather dependent since it is exposed or booking a bed at Mueller Hut in advance ($40).

Once at Mueller Hut, walking 1 hour roundtrip to A... is well worth the effort, especially for sunset. 


Add-On 2 Backpack the Ball Pass Route (Mt Cook)

Get up close with a glacier by camping at _____. This overnight hike requires route finding, good weather, and conditions (snow cleared).