MANILA, Philippines – Any nature junkie will want to put New Zealand on their travel bucket list.
It's Lord of the Rings country (the tour guides will even point out where Minas Tirith is) – a land of snow-capped mountains, cloud-fringed gorges, waterfall-dotted fiords, infinite valleys and electric-blue lakes.
My husband and I were in its South Island for only a week but we went on enough adventures to get us stoked. To those curious souls considering an NZ South Island trip, here are our favorite activities and some tips we picked up along the way.
Getting around: For ultimate independence, rent a car and drive across the island. Driving on the right-hand side takes some getting used to but the trouble is worth it. You get to stop by the many cafes and take as many photos as you want from astounding look-out points and make last-minute additions to your itinerary. Better to have more than one driver.
We were pretty happy with our car from Ace Car Rentals. It costs NZ$36 per day for a manual sedan but you can upgrade depending on your preference. We also paid NZ$19 a day for car insurance.
Other options include hopping on buses or arranging a packaged tour that comes with a driver and vehicle. You can also fly to major towns.
What to wear: We visited in the second week of March which is summer going on fall in New Zealand. Afternoons are chilly but manageable as long as you have a jacket and maybe a scarf. But mornings and nights can get painfully cold and windy. Bring leggings to wear under your pants and lots of layers. Fleece, wind-breakers, thermal socks and gloves are of great help.
Customs: New Zealand is very strict with the things you bring into their country. They're especially wary of insects or bacteria that could harm their agricultural sector, one of the major drivers of their economy. If you're bringing camping stuff, make sure they're clean of dirt or soil (this includes your hiking shoes!).
Closing shop: Start your day early because establishments close at 5 pm!
THINGS TO DO
1. Ditch hotels and go camping
Camping by Lake Pearson yielded a gorgeous sunrise but be ready for the cold
It's not every country that has campsites along its major roads where anyone can put up their tent for a small fee. If you're on a tight budget, you can even rely on these campsites instead of booking a hotel room. Of course, bring your own tent and other camping gear. For added oomph, camp out near major landmarks or natural attractions. On the first night, we camped out beside Lake Pearson. The next morning yielded a stunning sunrise and some winged visitors.
2. Bouldering in Castle Hill
The Castle Hill boulder area is part of the Great Alpine Highway
The hundreds of otherworldly rocks in Castle Hill make it a veritable Disneyland for bouldering but if you're not into the sport, it's still a worthwhile visit. Castle Hill, around two hours away from Christchurch, is part of the Great Alpine Highway. Many of the boulders are wahi tipu or sacred ground to the Maori so visitors must follow a code of conduct. You'll find rare plants and Maori rock drawings.
3. Stop by charming cafes along the road
Most villages and towns have historic or quirky shops like Run 77, a cafe and restaurant in Lake Tekapo village housed in the village station established in the mid-1800s
Almost every town boasts unique agricultural products from apple cider to jams to wine. The best way to have a taste of as many as possible is to snack at each village you pass. It's a great way to refresh yourself after driving all those miles.
4. Bike around Lake Tekapo
Views of the lake from a bike trail include a historic chapel
Lake Tekapo is one of the most beautiful lakes in South Island. The village around it boasts several bike tracks, some passing by a historic church right by the lake and into pine forests.
5. Take a night-time dip in hot springs
Go under a blanket of warm water in Tekapo Springs and look up at the stars
The best way to fight the Tekapo night-time chill is to submerge yourself in a steaming-hot outdoor pool and look up at the stars. Situated at the base of Mount John, the 3 pools of Tekapo Springs are surrounded by majestic fir trees. It's open from 10 am to 9 pm daily.
6. Visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center in Mount Cook Village
The museum allows you to marvel at the feats of some of the greatest outdoor explorers in the world
Hillary was the first man to summit Mount Everest. A New Zealander, he trained by climbing the country's highest peak – Mount Cook or in Maori language, Aoraki meaning "Cloud Piercer." The Alpine Center is a museum dedicated to him and other trailblazing Kiwi alpine mountaineers.
Antique alpine trekking gear and photos are displayed in the Old Mountaineers' Cafe and Restaurant
The museum is inside The Hermitage Hotel, a historic establishment that first brought tourists to New Zealand's Southern Alps. Have breakfast at the Old Mountaineers' Cafe and Restaurant in Mount Cook Village, an eatery established by Sir Edmund himself. Our recommendation: salmon bagels and hot chocolate.
7. Go on the Tasman Glacier lake
The tour will take you close to icebergs which can roll dangerously, prompting speedy getaways care of skilled boatmen
Touch 600-year-old icebergs fallen from a glacier while on a speedboat manned by chipper tour guides of tour company Glacier Explorers. There's a short hike on the way all the better for you to take in the Middle Earth scenery.
8. Swim in Lake Pukaki
You'll want to defy wisdom and swim in the cold waters of Lake Pukaki
Water from the Tasman glacier flows into Lake Pukaki giving it its distinct electric-blue color. Of course, this makes the water ice-cold but who can resist a dip? Park your car along a look-out point and bring out the picnic mat while the crazy ones go swimming.
9. Go outdoor gear shopping in Queenstown
Second-hand climbing packs (and the playful and laidback Kiwi attitude) on display in a Queenstown store
With its location in the heart of Nature Junkie Paradise, it's no surprise this laid-back city is full of gloriously large and well-stocked outdoor shops. Items can get pretty pricey but look carefully and you'll spot a few second-hand shops.
10. Go paragliding or hang-gliding
Photo by Tony of Coronet Peak Tandems
A van will take you around two hours from Queenstown up a mountain from where you will jump off into the clouds. Your pilot's fee often includes free photos taken with their GoPro camera. Add a little extra for video. We booked our pilots from Coronet Peak Tandems.
11. Take a boat through Fiordlands National Park
Several waterfalls can be spotted in Milford Sound, the most visited fiord in Fiordlands National Park
A fiord is a narrow body of water surrounded by cliffs carved by glaciers. The Fiordlands is New Zealand's biggest national park and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We went on a cruise in its most popular fiord, Milford Sound. You'll see several waterfalls cascading from its steep rock faces.
Our boat was chased by dolphins and we got pretty close to some sunbathing seals. We booked our tour from Kiwi Discovery, based in Queenstown.
12. Explore artsy, inspiring Christchurch
Yes, you can find sheep in the city too
The major city may not be as close to South Island's natural wonders as other hubs but it's the best place to observe how Mother Nature and humanity try to live in harmony. In 2011, the city was shaken by major earthquake (in fact an aftershock of a 2010 earthquake) that killed 185 people. The still broken city's path to recovery is uplifting and visually-appealing.
The state-commissioned street art ranges from kaleidoscopic graffiti to interactive installations. A must-visit are the 185 empty chairs commemorating the quake's victims and the Cardboard Cathedral, a transitional church made of cardboard, wood and glass.
Here is a rough sketch of our itinerary:
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