New Zealand 3 weeks (1 week in the north island and 2 in the south)
We spent three weeks with a rented camper van exploring the two islands of New Zealand. We pre-booked a few adventures and had a loose itinerary but mainly just went where the day took us. We hiked, biked, caved, kayaked, bungie jumped and drove our way across New Zealand having a blast along the way. We arrived a week before their season turned from Summer into Fall and had a mix of warm, chilly and rainy days along the way. It was shoulder season and their were less tourists than the summer season but there were still plenty of tourists out around the country. We always had an easy time finding a place to stay the night and somewhere to get food and groceries. No matter where we went the destination was always outstanding and the road getting there was often just as beautiful if not better.
March 8 we arrived into Auckland airport via Honolulu from Seattle dead tired and ready for sleep. We had to declare our hiking boots and tent and after going through the que got to the line had our boots washed off and were told our tent had to go in for inspection and we could check back in 15 minutes. After visiting the information center and calling the shuttle for our hotel we walked back over hoping we would soon receive our tent back. Luckily it was not too dirty and they allowed us to have it back. New Zealand is understandably trying to keep out unwanted items from camping equipment into the country so you have to go through inspection on used items like the ones we brought. After a short hop from the airport we arrived into our hotel and passed out after our long journey.
Waking up at a decent hour and feeling jet lagged but ready to go we had a quick breakfast and met our campervan at the hotel. We booked with Sleepervanz and they delivered our camper off at the hotel and gave us the run down. Our van was equipped with a convertible bed, folding table and chairs a cooker, water jug and a bit of storage in the back; everything we would need for three weeks. Our first stop was the Pack and Save market for our groceries. After filling up on the staples we headed to One Tree Hill and got a bird’s eye view of the city. We decided not to stay long in any city of the trip and headed out of Auckland first thing. Maybe we missed some sights but all in all I am happy with our decisions to stick with the natural beauty of the country versus the cities. From Auckland we made the two hour scenic drive to Matamata for our 3:30pm tour of Hobbiton. The two hour tour of the Hobbiton movie set was fun and well worth the $75 cost of admission if you are into the series. Although our tour guide did say 30% of people that go on the tours have never even seen the movies?? The tour is a walk through the some 40 hobbit holes and sets and ends with a drink at the Green Dragon which was the highlight. After we had our fill we headed to our first night of camping in our van. We ended up at the Mighty River Domain campground for the evening. An open peaceful spot with kitchen, showers and water supply. Our first night in the van was fun and as the sun set over the hills we knew we were in for a great trip.
From our camping location we woke early to head to our 10am 5 hour caving trip with Legendary Black Water Rafting Company in Waitomo Caves. We went on the Black Abyss tour complete with 35m abseil(rappelling) into Ruakuri Cave, a flying fox (zip line), tubing and a climb at the end of a waterfall. We had a great time and I only got scared once while rappelling down into the cave. We had a small group size and two great guides on the trip. The glowworms were amazing we turned off our headlamps at one point connected our tubes and stared up at the cave and the glow worms looked like the heavens. Part of the fun included getting decked out in our wetsuits and having a good laugh.
We got into Lake Taupo late that night and found a holiday park to park the van. The next morning we headed to a morning hike from Spa Park Hot Springs to Huka falls. The hike was along the very scenic Waikato river, New Zealand’s longest river passing the turquoise waters leading to the rushing falls. The parking lot at the Spa Park was a short distance for the river and the natural hot springs. The 30 minute hike lead us to Huka falls, a rushing narrow chasm of a waterfall. We stopped for a bit to take pictures and take in the view then headed back towards the hot springs. The hot thermal waters of the Otumuheke stream meet the Waikato river and the result is an amazing natural hot springs area complete with a little waterfall. The top section is the hottest and you can craft your perfect temperature the closer you get to the river the cooler it becomes. We had the place mostly to ourselves but I bet the park can get rather busy. Lounging in the hot springs was one of my highlights of the whole trip. It was amazing to see this amazing setting, beautiful hike and miraculous feat of mother nature.
After spending the morning at the falls and hot springs we headed into town for lunch at a restaurant used our phone to call my dad for his 65th birthday and book a hotel for the evening. Tommy wasn’t feeling well and needed a break from the camper van and we got a good deal at the Hilton. After checking in we were able to use the facilities complete with sauna, hot tub, steam room and pool. It was a great treat and we had a wonderful afternoon lounging in the sun on a warm day. That evening we went the hot water beach and made dinner by the beach watching the sun go down.
The next morning we had planned to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing but the weather up on the hike didn’t look good so we decided against the day hike. Instead we spent the morning bungee jumping! We made a last minute decision to go and booked a tandem discounted ticket through juicy.com deals. We got all set up to go and made it to the edge of the platform and I started to bail and tried my best to get out of jumping. Tommy and the guys at the platform weren’t having it, I was going. After a little bit of talking and a little bit of a what I would call gently push we jumped. Honestly I can’t even remember the free falling, I know I didn’t scream I think I was too scared. When we retracted back up that’s what I remember and that’s when I started to scream. It was great fun and the scenery couldn’t have been better. We jumped off a platform over the crystal clear blue water of the Waikato river.
That afternoon we headed to the art deco city of Napier on the east coast. We spent the afternoon exploring the city of Napier, which was rebuilt in the art deco fashion after the city was destroyed in the 1931 earthquake. Every year in February the city holds a art deco festival and I am determined to get back there some day and attend. We wondered the streets admiring the architecture and picked up a fish and chips (the first of many) dinner and ate by the beach. We stopped in at the I-site visitor center and found out about the three different parking lots by the beach that turn into free campervan camping in the right season. We drove around a bit till we found our favorite site and had front row beach camping ideal for watching the sun set. We drank wine, listened to the waving crashing and watched the sun go down on another amazing day in New Zealand.
The next morning we drove south on the coast passing through Hastings, Havelock North and tried unsuccessfully to hike Cape Kidnappers but the tide didn’t work out for us. In Hastings we went to the Ta Mata peak to make lunch and take in the view. The road to the summit passes sheep trails, rickety fences and stone escarpments and the views are breathtaking. We cooked lunch at the summit and enjoyed the view of Hawke Bay and the Mahia Peninsula. After lunch we headed to Havelock North to enjoy their plethora of food producers. We stopped and got amazing fresh strawberries at a pick your-own path and visited the Arataki Honey headquarters for free honey tastings, and even visited a mushroom producers and got fresh mushrooms. From Havlock North we headed towards Wellington staying the night in Greytown.
We stayed a night at a simple holiday park in Greytown and as it turned out they were having a hot air balloon festival the next morning! We woke before dawn and walked from our campground two minutes to the park where the crowd was gathering for the hot air balloons to take off. It was a beautiful sight, around 15 balloons getting ready to take off and take flight. There were lots of kids there bright eyed before they headed to school enjoying the balloons as much as we were. Once the balloons headed out we followed them for a bit down the road seeing them fly over the vast landscape. We went hiking that morning up to a lookout over the pass on the way to Wellington and saw 360 degree views ranging from Hawke’s Bay across the mountains. It was a short lovely hike and a great way to stretch our legs after multiple days of driving. Closer towards Wellington we stopped at the filming locations for Rivendale from the Lord of the Rings and a park were some scenes were shot. The parks were beautiful and we went on a hike around the Rivendale filming location where they have a few comparative signs pointing out the different movie scenes. The hike nearby lead through the forest across a swinging bridge. As we were leaving a Lord of the Rings tour group pulled up and we ran across them again later that day at another filming location. Our road atlas was complete with icons that indicated different movie filming locations. That afternoon we arrived in Wellington and spent the late afternoon exploring the city by foot and Tommy had his favorite fish and chips of the trip at Mt. Chipper restaurant. We checked out the botanical gardens and the free museum, Te Papa. You can reach the gardens from the city center via cablecar but we hiked around the gardens up to the top where the cablecar let out. The gardens were lovely and the view from the top looked out over the city. The Te Papa museum was really interesting and provided a nice glimpse into the history and culture of New Zealand. We stayed that night in a hotel near the ferry terminal in preparation for our journey to the south island the next morning.
The ferry across the Cook strait was a few hours and provided beautiful views and a relaxing way to get to the south island. We arrived late morning in Picton were the ferry terminal dropped off and we drove along the Marlborough Sound and called it an early day camping at a Department of Conservation (DOC) site in a picture perfect beach cove. We spent the afternoon cooking lunch, napping in the sun, drinking wine and taking in the view. It was the laziest day of our trip and we throughly enjoyed it.
The next morning we headed to Nelson where we rented bikes and toured the Great Taste Trail. The trail along the coast and through the area connects vineyards, beaches, breweries and restaurants along a separated bike trail. We rented bikes and spent the afternoon biking along the coast to the beach and back. Afterwards we stopped at a brewery and prepared for our two day kayaking adventure in Abel Tasman National Park.
We arrived early that morning to our kayaking company and spent the morning getting prepped and learning kayak safety and tips. We headed out early afternoon and spent the day kayaking the turquoise waters of Abel Tasman. While kayaking we stopped at a few beaches, paddled out to seal islands and leisurely made our way to our campsite. The season had started to change and the water wasn’t warm enough for swimming but it was still sunny enough to enjoy laying out on the beaches taking in the breathtaking views. We made camp at Anchorage Bay DOC campground late that afternoon and relaxed on the beach and explored the area until sunset. The next morning we left our kayaks and headed out on foot for a day hike in the park. We hiked from Anchorage Bay to Bark Bay taking side trips off the main trail to a isolated beautiful waterfall and Cleopatra’s pool. The lush rainforest and vast views of the coast made it a hike I will never forget. As we reached Bark bay the weather started to turn and became rainy and chilly just in time for our water taxi to arrive and take us back to our campervan in Marahau. We stayed the night at a holiday park in Motueka and caught up on our laundry and flat whites.
The next day we headed down the west coast through the narrow winding mountains and Buller Gorge stopping along the way sightseeing. We had a beautiful picnic by the beach once we hit the coast. The drive along the coast was one of the prettiest I’ve ever done, towering cliffs along the picturesque coast. We stopped for a hike at Punakaiki and checked out the Pancake Rocks famous for its blowholes and rock formations. The weathering process has left the stacked rocks to look like stacked pancakes and is truly a remarkable site. We took the easy loop walk through the rocks and blowholes and then went for a longer hike through the valley floor. The stop over at Punakaiki was one of my favorites of the whole trip. From there we headed south to Hokitika where we picked up some takeaways for dinner and went to Sunset Point for the grand finale sunset to a truly memorable day. We camped outside of town at a DOC site and were really lucky to have a beautiful sunny day on the typically rainy west coast.
We awoke in time to see the breathtaking sunrise over the lake while brushing our teeth. We make a quick detour to see the Hokitika Gorge, a ravine with turquoise waters, a swinging bridge and filming location for the Hobbit movies. The water color was unbelievable I have never seen water that insanely blue and brilliant and don’t think I ever will beat it. We hiked around the gorge a bit and were there early enough to have the place to ourselves. The park the gorge was in had some lovely picnic grounds and hiking trails we could have spent a great deal more time there. We had a full day scheduled so we headed on down the coast to Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Franz Josef Glacier was the first stop and we headed into the DOC site to learn about the hikes in the area and then quickly got onto the trailhead that lead to the glacier. The hike was a mainly flat walk to the base of the glacier. The views were outstanding and were surrounded by waterfalls, mountain views and of course the main course the stunning glacier in view the majority of the hike. The glaciers in the area (and probably everywhere) have greatly changed over the last few decades. They have resided further and further back, there are lakes were there used to be none and hikes that used to lead to the base of the glaciers now only lead you to view platforms where the glaciers are off in the distance. A chilling reminder of the reality and impact of climate change. We drove the 30ish minutes from Franz Josef Glacier to Fox Glacier where we checked in our hotel room in town. Fox Glacier is smaller than Franz but the area has Lake Matheson, a lovely lake where the mountains mirrors from the water. We walked the 1.5 hour loop around the lake and followed it up with a ice cream treat. Afterwards we made dinner at the hotel and then rushed out in time to watch the sunset over our noodles. The following morning we made the long drive to Queenstown through Haast Pass Highway stopping for a quick peek at the Blue Pools, another outstanding walk to blue waters that blow your mind.
We made it to Queenstown in the late afternoon and as we pulled into town saw a slope style biking completion practice run for the weekend competition. Queenstown an impossibly beautiful city on a lake with a hip fun vibe of a Colorado ski town. We walked the streets got dinner and took in the sites. Queenstown is surrounded by the Remarkables mountains and the views just don’t quit. After a few hours in Queenstown we made our way to the Fiordland camping at the first DOC in the park.
I had been looking forward to the Fiordland stop the most and I was not disappointed. We arrived late that night and parked within the park boundary to start early the next morning. The fiordland is New Zealand’s largest wilderness and is made up of jagged peaks, unbelievable watery sounds, rivers, lakes and the most incredible sights I have ever seen. The road to Milford Sound was the most insanely amazing drive along the Te Anau-Milford Highway a 119km road that takes around three hours to end up at the awe inspiring Milford Sound. It took us the full day with stops along the way to make it to the sound. We had our morning Flat White coffees walking around Lake Mistletoe and spent the afternoon stopping at various viewpoints along the road. The day was rainy and the long range views were a little cloudy but the benefit was the magical rainbow across a lake later that afternoon. We cooked lunch at a trailhead at the back of the van in the pouring rain and combatted the intense sandflies and bees that swarmed. As we made our way along the route we headed into the Homer tunnel and emerged into high walled ice-carved downward slopping road where at one point I wanted to shout in glee at the beauty of it all. Seriously, I have been to a lot of amazing places in my life and this drive and these peaks and mountains where beyond it all. Milford Sound is at the end of the road and I felt like I was holding my breath as we approached the view of the sound I was so excited. The view as partially blocked because of the rain but the pay off the next morning when we saw the Mitre Peak was out of this world.
We booked a camping spot at the cozy Milford Sound Lodge hoping that the rain would pass the next day and the views of the sound would clear. We spent a soggy night camping, hiding from the sandflies and snuggling up in the back of the van watching The Lord of the Rings on the laptop. We woke early the next morning to a rainy morning and about gave in to sleep in fearing there would be no clear views of the sound. Luckily, we got up and the reward was magnificent views and an incredible cruise around the sound. The morning started off rainy but cleared up the longer we were out on our 2 hour cruise around the sound. We saw sweet seals and waterfalls and peaks and long range views that I will never forget. The cruise of the sound was a highlight of the trip and was incredible being out on the water with jutting mountain peaks surrounding us. After our morning cruise we tackled two long hikes back along the Te Anau-Milford highway. First we hiked to a picture perfect lake then powered through and hiked through the misty mountains up to Key Summit. Key Summit is apart of the Routeburn great walk and takes you up to the Alpine environment to 360 degree views of the mountains. After an exhausting amazing day we made camp at a DOC site after a tasty back of the van curry meal.
Before light the next morning we awoke to a chewing noise that keep both of us up. I couldn’t handle it and we decided a rat was under our van chewing and we needed to go! We drove in the dark for an hour and pulled over to brush our teeth and get dressed. As we were brushing our teeth we open the van door and what pops it nose through a tiny hole in the van door flooring? Our nasty rat (or vole) friend! Ugh I was not a happy camper, not on my watch, I wasn’t going to spend the next week waking every night to a rat chewing its’ way through the floor of the van. I told Tommy, this needs to be fixed, FIXED!!! Tommy drives for a bit makes his way to a gas station and comes out chewing big wad of gum sticks it in the hole of the van, and poof no more rat the rest of the trip (or at least that we heard). After the rat/vole incident we drove to the southern tip of the south island through the southern scenic route to the Catlins. The Catlins is a sweet little region in the south comprised of lush farmlands, forests, and a stunning coastline. We took the long way around and stopped at multiple sights along the coast including Porpoise Bay where we saw the rare Hector dolphins and Curio Bay where we spotted the fossilized Jurassic-era trees while on the lookout for the yellow-eyed penguins. One of the quirkiest stops of the trip was at the Lost Gypsy Gallery in Papatowai. It’s hard to describe this “gallery” it is a collection of the owner’s experiments and inventions in an interactive exhibit garden. It was super fun to check out and my favorite bit was the organ of bright lights, noises and wonders. From there we took a gravel road to see Purakaunui Falls (my favorite of the trip) and on the way got stuck in a traffic jam of escaped sheep. We rounded a corner and in front of us was close to a flock of a thousand sheep walking in the middle of our route. The delay was worth the giggles and photo opportunity of the silly escaped sheep. As the day faded into the evening we tried our second attempt at spotting the rarest of penguins, the yellow eyed penguins. The yellow eyed penguins spend the day at sea and come in on the beach around sunset so we hoped to catch them as the came in. The penguins are very sensitive to human interactions and sounds so to view the penguins we huddled in a DOC bunker at a safe distance from the penguins so they didn’t feel threatened. The second attempt of the day proved to be the same as the first so we went on a short walk to the lighthouse on Nugget Point. The lighthouse sat on jagged cliffs and had seals and sea lions on the shores below. We walked around the lighthouse and waited for that magic minute of sunset lighting for a photo op then quickly made our way back to Roaring Bay to try and catch sight of those elusive penguins. We were in luck they had made their way onto the beach and were walking along the shore. They were really amazing to see, the three attempts to get a peek were worth it. We spent the evening at a hotel in Dunedin, the second largest city on the south island.
We spent the morning checking out Dunedin and driving around the Otago Peninsula. The Peninsula is just outside of the city and has a diversity of wildlife and beautiful coastline. From Dunedin we made a afternoon stop in a quirky little town, Oamaru. Oamaru’s main attraction is the Victorian village by the water which is steampunk themed. There are odd shops, galleries and a super cool playground by the pier. We stopped in several shops, had a beer on the patio of the brewery and laughed at each other on the quirky playground equipment. After spending far longer than we had planned in Oamaru we went towards the direction of Mt. Hood stopping to camp in Omarama in the Waitaki district. We got a lovely campsite under a weeping willow tree at the holiday park in town and walked from our campsite to the Omarama Hot Tubs. The hot tubs were private wood-fired tubs where we spent two hours that evening drinking wine and relaxing.
From Omarama we drove to Mt. Cook National Park, we didn’t originally plan to stop in Mt. Cook but I sure am glad we did. We were lucky and visited on a clear day and the views were breathtaking. There were several great hikes to choose from but after stopping in at the DOC and making lunch out of the van with a view of a glacier we went on the Hooker Valley track. a three hour hike along the Hooker Valley crossing three swimming bridges and outstanding views of Mt. Cook to end up at the lake of glacier complete with icebergs. Mt. Cook was truly amazing and defiantly worth visiting on a clear day, not to mention another Lord of the Rings filming location. We spent the evening at a quite Doc campground surrounded by idyllic farmland. We were coming to the end of our trip and had to make a last minute decision about where to spend our last two days and ending up deciding to view the Banks Peninsula outside of Christchurch.
The Banks Peninsula was formed by two volcanic eruptions eight million years ago and is shaped (in my opinion) like a lobster claw. The drive around the peninsula was once again insanely beautiful and had us stopping every few minutes to take pictures. We drove around the windy mountain roads to the coastal little town of Akaroa. Akaroa is a sweet little town on the water with little shops and stunning views and unfortunately when we were there, cruise ship passengers. The little town was hit with the thousands of cruiseship passengers after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake rerouted cruise ships to their little town. We walked around town for a bit dodging the crowds and then headed to our farmstay a few miles outside of town at the Onuku Farm. We rented the Tonga Hut a semi-pirvate hut with views facing the coast and enjoyed our evening making dinner, walking to the beach and watching the sunset. Onuku Farm is a working farm that has been around for decades and has accommodations for campervans, huts, and a hostel. It is a quirky little place outside of town down a windy gravel road and turned out to be a really fun place to stay.
Our last morning exploring in New Zealand was spent hiking along the turquoise waters and an adventures drive along windy roads headed towards Christchurch. We started off on the main tourist scenic drive route stopping every few minutes for photo taking and then ended up on a side road down to the beach for walk and ended up looking at the map and me asking “huh do you think this is a short cut?” I should have known when the sign said large vehicles not suggested that we were headed down a road we should not have been. The next hour was spent on hairpin turns along the cliffs up and down and around the coast until we finally after what was certainly not a short cut we made our way to Christchurch. We spent our evening walking around the Botanical gardens in Christchurch and exploring the Re-start mall, an outdoor makeshift mall of container boxes converted into stores after the earthquake. Christchurch was honestly hard to visit after such an amazing trip and being out in the country to come to a city that was totally devastated by an earthquake. It was hard to understand and see and I don’t think the guidebooks prepared us for the true devastation of the city. We enjoyed our last evening at the Botanical gardens all the same and got a hotel room for the evening to sort through of belongings and clean out the van. We flew out the next afternoon after a quick morning back at the gardens and returning the van. The thirty hour journey back to Seattle was a long one but the flight was worth the unforgettable three weeks spent exploring New Zealand.
I am so blessed to have been fortunate enough to have spent three weeks with my husband on our honeymoon in New Zealand. I want to thank all the people that contributed to our honeymoon fund and helped make our trip possible. While there were a few ever so brief thoughts of a honeymoon spent on a tropical beach somewhere I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect honeymoon and will never forget our magical trip.