The new year is upon us and this holiday season I had the privilege to be able to travel to New Zealand for Christmas and New Years. Often known for its picturesque scenery in Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, New Zealand is an island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a distinct blend of western European and indigenous Maori cultures. From glacially carved hills and valleys to sprawling plains with cows and sheep, New Zealand is the place for nature lovers to (re)connect with themselves and the universe. Check out the top things to do and places to see in New Zealand’s South Island!
Christchurch is a quaint little town in the Canterbury region of the South Island. Since we were there on Christmas Day, many shops and restaurants were closed but there is still much to do and see in the city center part of town. Christchurch and other areas of the Canterbury region were severely affected by an earthquake that shook the region in 2011, so it is still recovering from those losses and damages.
For water enthusiasts, Kaikoura is a short three-hour drive from Christchurch to the eastern coast of the southern island, where whale and dolphin watching are popular activities. An alternative to whale watching boat tours is an airplane flight above the Pacific Ocean to spot whales from the sky, which tourists usually opt for during rain and choppy waters when boats cannot go into the ocean. Dolphins are typically easier to spot, while sperm whales tend to hide and stay underwater for longer. There are also mini hiking trails and viewing points near the coast where you can spot and get up close to seals and seagulls.
TransAlpine Kiwi Rail
The TransAlpine Kiwi Rail is one of the best ways to get a glimpse of the diversity of landscapes in New Zealand. The TransAlpine Rail goes from the east to west coast of the southern island, departing from Christchurch and arriving in Greymouth. Throughout the five-hour journey, there are jaw-dropping sights of the Southern Alps, tall canyons, rivers, mountains, and waterfalls.
Franz Josef/Fox Glaciers
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are approximately 30 kms away from one another, with Franz Josef being more snow-capped and popular among tourists. There are two options to get to the top of Franz Josef glacier. The first is a 20-minute helicopter ride which takes you there, allows about five minutes for pictures, and returns back to the Franz Josef village. The other option is a helicopter ride followed by a three-hour guided hike on the ice. Unlike glaciers in Alaska or the North Pole, the best part about this glacier is that temperatures are warmer than expected, especially in the summer.
Besides going to the top of the glacier, other activities in Franz Josef village include hiking trails through the mountains and hot glacier pools. The hiking trails are part of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park and range in length from 1 hour to 8 hours. The hot glacier pools are a popular attraction for tourists. Essentially, the water is taken from the melting glaciers and heated to warm temperatures so people can choose and switch between three different pools. The best time to take a dip in the pools is in the evening when a cool breeze begins to come in.
About 4 kms from Fox Glacier is Lake Matheson, which is supposed to be the most photographed location in all of New Zealand. Lake Matheson also features a few different hiking trails to see the reflection of the mountains and glacier in the mirror lake. A nice, brief stop along the way, especially if you’re driving through the country.
The drive from Franz Josef to Lake Wanaka is one of the most beautiful drives in the southern island. With picturesque scenery appearing suddenly, cameras always have to be on standby and easily accessible, and this is not the case for just this journey but for any road trips in New Zealand. From the stunning views of the Southern Alps to the scenic Bruce Bay to the lush greenery and waterfalls, the southern island is brimming with beauty.
The fifth largest lake in all of New Zealand, Lake Wanaka is a nice getaway with many water sports in and around the lake. From lower-risk activities like pedal boating to more intense ones like jet skiing, there is a range of adventure for everyone. We chose to do an activity called the Wana Jet, which is essentially a thrilling jet speedboat ride on the Cluthe River, and it offered an appropriate amount of adventure for our taste.
Queenstown is a beautiful city located further down on the southern island. It surrounds Lake Wakatipu, which is the third largest lake in all of New Zealand. Taking a gondola/cablecar up to the top of a mountain in Queenstown offers many options for activities, including zipline, luge, bungee jumping, hiking, skydiving, biking, and much more. The zipline tour with EcoTrek is highly recommended and consists of zip-lining through the forest, information on the environment and sustainability, and Maori legends and folk tales about the formation of natural landscapes around Queenstown. Even on a cloudy day, the views of the mountains and the lake from the top are absolutely breathtaking.
Te Anau Glowworms Cave
A three-hour drive southwest of Queenstown is the village of Te Anau, which marks the entrance to Fiordland National Park and the Glowworms Cave. The Te Anau Glowworm Cave Tour consists of a boat ride to the cave through Lake Te Anau, followed by a walking and small boat tour within the cave. Glowworms are unique creatures whose tails light up like stars to imitate the night sky in order to attract prey using a fishing line technique. Going on the smaller boat inside the dark cave and seeing the glowworms up close is a magical experience. Inside the cave are gushing waterfalls from melting glaciers at the top of the mountain.
Also situated within the Fiordland National Park is Milford Sound. Known by its Maori name Piopiotahi, Milford Sound is a water body that was carved by melting glaciers moving through the valley and leads into the Tasman Sea. During the boat cruise along Milford Sound, you can spot a few waterfalls, one of which is taller than Niagara Falls, and possibly some water animals, such as seals and dolphins.
As always, I will leave you with a Bollywood travel tidbit. Selected scenes and songs of Indian films, including Kaho Naa Pyaar Hain, Maatraan, I Hate Luv Storys, not to mention classic Hollywood flicks like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, have all been filmed in various cities across New Zealand. Try to spot and recognize these next time you’re in this part of the world!