Help me plan an itinerary for New Zealand
March 6, 2013 2:48 AM   Subscribe

I am visiting NZ (South Island only, unfortunately) for about a week's holiday, starting mid-March (only 10 more sleeps to go, as they say). I'm flying in and out of Queenstown. What places should I visit? What should I see? What should I do? What car rental service is good? Any recommended places to stay?

I'm unlikely to visit NZ again (shame, I know) anytime soon, so I need to have some sort of a plan. I've heard of a lot of places, and I have the South Island's tourism insert from just the last weekend's paper, but it all seems like a lot to consider and frankly, a bit overwhelming.

My backpacker days are far behind me, so I would prefer to stay in (I guess) mid-range hotels or B&Bs as I drive around the Island. I know of Avis and other car rental brands, but my experience has been that there are lots of non-brand car rentals which are just as good (at least in Aus). I would enjoy visiting some wonders of nature that NZ seems to have on offer. Not keen on clubbing, getting drunk etc. The idea is to have a relaxing, rejuvenating holiday.
posted by vidur to Travel & Transportation around New Zealand (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I did a similar trip ages ago...Fox Glacier was interesting. It was the wrong season to see penguins (I think the area for that is near queens town?). The "glow worm grotto" was a random side trip one day, but I thought it was really neat.
posted by maryrussell at 3:56 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding Fox Glacier, plus I thought Milford Sound was spectacularly lovely. We also had a great time touring the vineyards up around Renwick, and closer to where you're starting from, Wanaka was a lot of fun to hang out in.

Want more? We blogged everything we did during our two month tour of NZ (both islands) in 2007.
posted by ZipRibbons at 4:23 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: Note that Queentown is considered the "Adrenaline capital of the world", so if you want to go really fast either horizontally or vertically, this is the place to go. Personally, I found the Shotover Jet a highlight, although the luge was also fun. Everything in that area is fairly expensive though. If the cost doesn't scare you off, you could probably spend the best part of the week just in Queenstown.

With regard to further afield, be aware that the roads are fairly long and winding (particularly up the west coast). A trip up to the glaciers will take most of a day, so you'll probably want to stay overnight to see anything. We stayed here, which was functional but pleasant. If you want to join one of the helicopter flights up onto the glacier, you will need to book in advance.

If you're looking for something more gentile, Arrowtown, an old mining town, is picturesque and a short drive from Queenstown.
posted by oclipa at 4:28 AM on March 6, 2013

Loved Milford Sound. It's a beautiful country to drive through, as well. I think my rental company started with a J, and was one I'd never heard of before, but they were fine.
posted by backwards guitar at 4:47 AM on March 6, 2013

I reckon you could go almost anywhere in NZ and find beautiful scenery!

It was over 10 years ago so take with a grain of salt but I found Wanaka to be a just as pretty but more charming version of Queenstown.
posted by pianissimo at 6:40 AM on March 6, 2013

Well, Queenstown is great, so make sure to enjoy that for a few days. I also had a lot of fun in and around Dunedin, which would be a drive straight east to the coast from Queenstown. Dunedin's colonial roots are more scottish than british, so that flavor holds a bit there. Just outside of Dunedin there is an area where you can view endangered penguins and just down the road from that endangered albatrosses.
posted by mcstayinskool at 6:49 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: Penguin Place is the area in Dunedin where you can go into the hides and watch the penguins. Best time to go is late afternoon/early evening when they are popping up out of the water.

We always use apex car rentals when we go (home to) NZ. Customer service is really good.

Throwing around some ideas:

With only ten days I would spend a day or two in Queenstown at the start and finish. If you want to go to Milford that will be a day driving in and a day out. Problem with this area is that very thing -- a long drive one way to go somewhere and a long drive back. I would drive via Lake Pukaki/Lake Tekapo (Rt 8) to Christchurch from Queenstown. Stop a lot for the magnificent scenery. Spend a day or two in Christchurch, don't get earthquaked on, maybe a day trip to Kaikoura or Hanmer Springs. Drive down to Dunedin for a day (I am biased, bc I'm from Dunedin) and if you're into wildlife definitely see the birds as mentioned above. Listen to good music. Drive back to Queenstown via Lawrence/Alexandra, or via Middlemarch.

Spend your first days in Queenstown doing adventure stuff. Spend your last days in Queenstown maybe having lunch at a nice winery (Amisfield does a fantastic lunch, and it's by Lake Hayes, which is lovely) and maybe visit Arrowtown.
posted by gaspode at 7:13 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: You definitely need a car (just in case you were considering going without). Renting a car in NZ is nothing like renting in the US. The cars are all crappy. Not a big deal, they run fine, just don't be surprised when they give you a car with 175k kms on it.

Queenstown is awesome. When I was there a few years ago, we had a vacation rental which we loved. I'd recommend Fergburger for one meal at least.

With a week on the south island, our itinerary was:
- Queenstown (one day)
- Te Anu, stopping for scenery and LOTR sightseeing on the way
- full day doubtful Sound kayaking trip (it was COLD and we saw penguins)
- drive to Franz-Joseph glacier for sunset kayak tour (we didn't make it to this, poor planning and longer than expected drive times)
- morning helihike on Fox glacier (canceled due to weather), drive to Wanaka
- small plane experience + hike (tour) at Mt Aspiring; stargazing tour (the stargazing was canceled due to weather)
- Mt Cook (we ended up just cutting this, too much driving)
- back to Queenstown and depart

This itinerary was JAM PACKED and had way too much driving. Give yourself an extra day or so at the glaciers if you have your heart set on it (I did and was very sad to not be able to do the helihike). I think in March you'll be better off not pre-booking your hotels and leaving your schedule flexible. I'd do glacier stuff at the first opportunity, weather-wise. The Doubtful Sound kayaking was probably my favorite activity on the south island. Definitely recommend a glow worm cave trip (we did this in Waitomo and it was awesome). Memail me if you have more questions :)
posted by tealcake at 7:46 AM on March 6, 2013

If you want to avoid the crowds in Milford Sound, give Doubtful Sound a shot. Hiking near Arthur's Pass is great. We had great luck with vacation rentals as well, so give that a shot over hotels. If you end up near the north end of the south island, check out wine and sea kayaking in Abel Tasman, near Nelson.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:15 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: I just spent February in New Zealand. Since you're not interested in getting drunk, I'd recommend making Wanaka your base rather than Queenstown because you will be with like-minded people. The Rob Roy Glacier is a beautiful day hike from Wanaka.

If you decide to go further afield, don't waste time touring Christchurch or Dunedin themselves; they are fine cities but don't contain wonders of nature. Right now Franz Josef Glacier is more impressive than Fox. Definitely worth a drive; there are many beautiful stops (rivers, waterfalls) in the Haast Pass on your way. Leave enough time that you can spend a whole day on the glacier. I strongly second others' suggestions of cruising Milford Sound, seeing yellow eyed penguins at Penguin Place (and little blue penguins at Pilots Beach nearby), visiting a glowworm cave or grotto (Te Anau has one), and saving money with an Apex car rental.

If you know and love good food, you will like:
Fleurs Place in Moeraki---seriously worth a detour
Vudu Cafe & Larder on Rees St. in Queenstown
Redcliff Restaurant & Bar
in Te Anau
posted by drdanger at 9:35 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: My #1 piece of advice is pick three or four places and focus on those. I went to the South Island (no "unfortunately" required!) with a friend last year and made the mistake of acquiescing to his a-different-place-every-day itinerary. Which meant we often spent close to eight hours a day driving. The island may not look that big, but the roads are twisty and the speed limit is almost never over 80 km/h (50 mph) so it takes a while to get anywhere. We both got speeding tickets over the course of that week and they're not cheap. I'd say spend a couple of days around Queensland, a couple by Te Anau/Fiordland/Milford Sound, and choose either (a) Dunedin and the Catlins or (b) Wanaka and Mt. Aspiring. If you heed nothing else, SKIP INVERCARGILL.
posted by psoas at 10:34 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was in NZ for just under a month a few years back, and spent half that time on the south island.

Chch was OK, Wellington was amazing, I did not care for Queenstown at all (not into extreme sports, raging, drinking, etc.) but I was only there for a day -- and flying in/out is AMAZING (and/or terrifying) due to the required relatively close approach to these guys. Nelson is indeed absolutely wonderful, but it's a 10-hour one-way drive from Queenstown, so I might recommend sticking around the south end of the south island (Otago/Fiordland/Southland) if you only have a week, just to minimize stress/travel hassles. Driving in NZ is something of an experience unto itself; you should generally budget at least another hour in addition to what Google Maps/GPS might say.
That said, if you like hot springs and wouldn't mind driving 7+ hours to get to them, check out Hanmer Springs. Eight-ish hour drive from QT: Kaikoura, which is beautiful and great for whale-watching. I really enjoyed the scenery and visiting the Royal Albatross Centre in Dunedin (3.5 hour drive), and my B&B driver carted me all over town when he wasn't otherwise busy. Quite a lovely city. However, I was unceremoniously hit and knocked down by a car (though I had the walk signal/right of way and had already looked both ways to ensure there was no traffic) in Dunedin, and they drove off without even pausing to see if I was OK, so I can't recommend walking in that city in good faith because it was a rather awful experience.

The crown jewel of my south island visit was spending a week in Te Anau. I stayed at the local YHA hostel (which was lovely, by hostelling standards -- not as nice as the YHA in Nelson, but quite nice nonetheless) and went on day tramps/cruises through RealJourneys, whose guides were friendly and approachable. I took this cruise and it was AMAZING; I know I'll never see anything else like it for the rest of my life. There were whales and dolphins and penguins and waterfalls, it looked like a postcard everywhere I turned. I also did a nighttime glowworm cave expedition that was simply out of this world. The guided day trek on Milford Track left my soul yearning for more. I was in Fiordland for 10 days and it passed like an afternoon.

Have fun!
posted by divined by radio at 1:58 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you, all! Great recommendations. This should set me up nicely!
posted by vidur at 5:00 PM on March 6, 2013

Puzzling World outside Wanaka is great if you like that kind of thing. I've heard really good things about the Doubtful Sound cruise. Dunedin is nice and the peninsula / albatross colony is worth a look.

Coincidentally we're doing a two-week road trip around that area from Christchurch, so we'll probably drive past you at some point. I don't think ten days is really enough to do the Christchurch loop justice - you can certainly fill the time without going that far north and then you don't have some of the boring drives like Timaru -> Chch. Arthurs Pass / Hamner are really nice, but I'd save those for a north-half-of-the-south-island trip to be honest. Also, getting accommodation in Christchurch sucks right now as a lot of places are still closed post-quake.
posted by xiw at 5:04 PM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: I'll third Doubtful sound. Milford is great, but a lot of people go there. There's no road access to Doubtful sound, so it's a lot more peaceful.

Queenstown is an overpriced tourist trap - spend time there if that's your thing, but I'd give it a miss. You definitely should spend some time on the West Coast. One option might be to travel over Haast pass, up the West Coast and visit lake Matheson [a few km off the main road a Fox Glacier], Franz Joseph Glacier, Punakaiki and anywhere else that takes your fancy. Then loop back via Lewis pass, visiting Hanmer Springs, include a side trip to Kaikoura if you like, and return via the inland road [turn off at Amberley]. The main road south from that point is flat, straight & boring, the inland road has more variety.

Keep in mind that some of these areas are very sparsely populated, so stop for food/fuel etc when you can.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:03 PM on March 6, 2013

Response by poster: UPDATE: Had a great time. Thanks, folks!
Visited Queenstown, Te Anau, Milford Sound, Wanaka and Franz Josef. Did the glow worm tour, shotover jet, heli hike to glacier. Did some hiking around Te Anau and Wanaka, and basically had a great time. Used Apex car rental, who were great. Needed to change car once (so much gravel on the roads! got a huge crack in the windscreen) and they were super nice and helpful about the whole thing.
posted by vidur at 6:51 PM on March 25, 2013

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