As an outdoor junkie and amateur photographer, I find it difficult to imagine a travel destination more perfect than the South Island of New Zealand. It’s as picturesque as it is exciting, with every beautiful location presenting another unique opportunity to immerse yourself in nature.
#1 Rent a camper van and drive the South Island
During the first few days of my trip, I decided to rent a camper van so as to see as many of the sights as possible. With so many places on my itinerary, this turned out to be an excellent decision. Not only was it convenient to have my very own hotel room on wheels, but it also gave me the freedom to stop and explore the many different hiking trails scattered throughout the South Island.
Thankfully, driving the long stretches of road never felt like a chore. Lengthy road trips were more enjoyable than they were arduous because every bend in the road revealed another postcard-worthy view.
#2 Trek the non-tropical beaches and rainforests at Punaikiki
I hadn’t expected to find many beaches and rainforests in a country famous for its snowcapped mountains, and so my stop at Punaikiki, a small coastal town, turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Though vastly different from the sunny, tropical seashores of the Philippines, New Zealand’s coastlines are beautiful in their own right. I found the beach strolls and rainforest hikes incredibly relaxing, especially since I was able to do both without breaking a sweat. No heat and humidity? No problem.
Foodie tip: make time in your schedule for a meal at the Punaikiki Tavern. They make the best garlic bread ever.
#3 Crawl through an ice cave at Franz Josef Glacier
What was it like to walk on a 7000 year-old glacier, weaving around towers of ice, sipping glacial water, and crawling through frozen caves? In a word, cool. Intensely, immensely cool.
After being dropped of by helicopter, which is the only way to get onto the glacier itself, I was given crampons (metal spikes for my shoes) and two hiking sticks to help me keep my footing on the icy terrain. It was surprisingly warm up on the glacier – although that may have been attributable to the four jackets and thermal pants that I was asked to wear.
#4 Stay at a lakeside town
Part of the quintessential New Zealand experience is spending a couple of nights at one of the country’s lakeside towns. Whether it’s Queenstown – the adventure capital of New Zealand – or a smaller town like Wanaka, you’re sure to find something exciting to do.
These towns are so enchanting that many of the local residents I met on my trip had come to New Zealand as visitors, fallen in love with the place, and just… never left. Even after years of living in these relatively small towns, they’re still in love with their outdoorsy lifestyles. Mountain biking, bungee jumping, hiking, kayaking, rafting, camping – you name it. If it has anything to do with nature, you’ll find it at these towns.
Foodie tip: while you’re at Queenstown, make sure to grab a juicy burger at FergBurger and some freshly baked cookies at Cookie Time. Both are famous among the locals, and for good reason. They’re delicious.
#5 Summit the unbelievably beautiful Roy’s Peak
I’ve been on my fair share of hikes both inside and outside the Philippines, but in terms of having drop-dead gorgeous views, this one easily takes the cake.
A mere 10-minute drive from Lake Wanaka (or a 90-minute drive from Queenstown), Roy’s peak is definitely worth a day trip. At nearly 1,600 meters above sea level, it’s tall enough to grant you a stunning panorama of the surrounding countryside, but not so tall that it will require an overnight stay. I made it to the top and down in one afternoon, and though it was challenging at some points, the view was totally, totally worth it.
#6 Tour Milford Sound by air & sea
Dubbed as one of the world’s 100 most beautiful destinations by National Geographic, Milford Sound definitely lives up to its title. The 19-kilometer fjord – a narrow channel of water bordered by high cliffs – is a natural wonder in and of itself. With towering peaks, pristine blue waters, roaring waterfalls, and even the occasional sea lion, it’s a marvel to behold.
If you’re given the chance, opt to take the scenic flight to and from the fjord. It’s surreal. You’ll fly over several Lord of the Rings filming locations (which your pilot will point out) and an endless sea of snowcapped mountains, stretching out as far as the eye can see.
#7 Enjoy the views at Mt. Cook National Park
Of all the places I visited during my stay in New Zealand, Mt. Cook National Park was my favorite. Not only did the rolling fields and mountain ranges make for dramatic views all around, but its status as the largest dark sky reserve in the world meant that each night was bursting with stars. If seeing the Milky Way with your naked eyes is on your bucket list, this is the place to be.
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