As promised, I’m back with the second half of our honeymoon adventure through New Zealand! Day 6 was our first full day on the South Island. In case you missed the first half and our NZ shenanigans, you can see what we were up to on the North Island in this post.
Day 6 | St Arnaud → Haast
Early the next morning, I woke up with the sun and walked down to the dock at Lake Rotoiti. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides, the lake looks out into Nelson Lakes National Park. Although I was hoping for a dramatic sunrise, clouds had settled in instead. Even though there was no color to capture, I still spent about 30 minutes fussing with my tripod trying to take some neat photos (and trying not to freeze my fingers off!).
With some semi-successful photos in hand, we made our way back up to the lodge, listening to a delightful symphony of early-morning bird calls. New Zealand has a tremendous diversity of bird species, many of which have distinct, exotic-sounding songs.
After scarfing down some breakfast at the lodge, we loaded our things into the car for our longest day of travel. The drive from St. Arnaud to Haast was about 6 hours. Despite being one of the longest drives, this was one of my favorite days anyway.
We got on our way, and as we neared the west coast of the South Island, we left the dreary cloud cover behind us. The sun broke into an amazingly beautiful and bright day. In contrast to the early morning lake, mountains, and clouds, we were now on the beautiful, green coast with the sun sparkling off the Tasman Bay.
We took a slightly longer route so that we could stop at Punakaiki, a small coastal community. I’ve never visited Hawaii, but I imagine the scenery there has a lot in common with this part of NZ.
Before we got to Punakaiki proper, we stopped at a couple of overlooks to admire the beautiful coastline and to stretch our legs. The sun was warm and refreshing after a couple of cloudy, cold days.
One of the main attractions in Punakaiki is the walk out to the pancake rocks and blowholes. The above photo shows how the pancake rocks get their name–the unusual geological formations made an already gorgeous coast even more interesting. The waves crashed into the huge rock formations, surf spraying in every possible direction.
The walk only took us 20 or 30 minutes, then we were on our way again. The road wound away from the coast and closer to the mountains. We passed through the towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, but sadly, we weren’t able to fit in a glacier tour this time. Clouds perpetually hang over the glaciers, and the sunny day turned cloudy as we passed through. Turns out, the glaciers get about 6-8 meters of rain a year!
The scenery changed one last time to the heavily forested meeting place of mountains and sea. After a very long day, we arrived at one of my absolute favorite spots of our trip: the Wilderness Lodge at Lake Moeraki.
The lodge is nestled in a remote area about 30 minutes from the Haast township. It was so isolated that there was absolutely zero cell reception. The only connection to the outside world was a modest allowance of wifi via satellite. The lodge sits alongside Lake Moeraki, just a couple miles from the coast of the Tasman Bay. Adding to the off-the-grid theme, the Lodge produces its own power via hydro generator from the Moeraki River. We had a delicious and quiet 4-course dinner at the Lodge to round out our day.
Day 7 | Haast → Wanaka
The next day, the Lodge staff prepared breakfast for us before we departed for our activity of the day. One of the main attractions of the Wilderness Lodge is its proximity to Fiordland crested penguin habitat. These penguins, also called Tawaki (the Maori word for “lightning”), are one of the rarest species in the world, with only a few thousand birds left.
Our guide from the Lodge took us to one of the areas the penguins frequent. We crouched behind a log, being sure to be quiet and not disturb the shy birds. Sure enough, mere moments after we sat down at our beachside viewing spot, we spotted a trio of wild penguins swimming in on the waves.
The penguins are an absolute delight to watch. Their quirky mannerisms and clumsy way of hopping around on the rocks was utterly charming. All told, we saw about 25 birds! I could easily have sat there all day just watching the little critters. Well, except for the sandflies, which are basically evil New Zealand mosquitoes that tried to eat me alive.
After taking literally 1,000 photos and getting half-eaten by sandflies, we returned to the Lodge for lunch before packing up yet again. We had about 4 hours to make the 2-hour drive to Wanaka, so we took our time. Yet again, the South Island did not disappoint and delivered stunning views the entire way.
First, we stopped at the Gates of Haast, one of NZ’s countless one-lane bridges. Its steel beams and the roaring Haast River make this one particularly impressive. The river was lined with boulders the size of trucks. Between the huge rocks and the speed of the icy river, it was a formidable sight.
Further down the road, we stopped at the famous Blue Pools Walk. The walk is a short, easy, but very rewarding little trek. Two suspension bridges perch over top the breathtakingly aqua-blue water underneath. (Oh, and there were more sandflies.)
After leaving the heavy forest, the road snaked along Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Our destination was a camping site a few miles off the main road, tucked away above Lake Wanaka.
But this wasn’t just any camping site: it was glamping! An elaborate setup with furniture and running water (thank goodness) awaited us. Our spot was perched on top of a hill with views of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains. We were treated to a gorgeous sunset our first night.
Day 8 | Wanaka
We were staying two nights in Wanaka, so this was the first night in several days that we didn’t have to pack up to leave first thing in the morning. This worked out well, since Mr. AA had come down with a bit of a head cold. I had been planning for us to go hiking, but between the head cold and the on-and-off rain that day, we decided to take it easy.
So, we had a low-key day of lots of napping in the tent. For the last part of the day, we walked around Wanaka a little bit, but largely it was pretty uneventful.
Day 9 | Wanaka → Queenstown
After our second night perched over Lake Wanaka, it was time to continue our trek south. Since we weren’t in a rush to leave, we slept in before packing and cleaning up. On our way south, we took the slightly longer route through wine country. We stopped for a brief wine tasting at a vineyard and enjoyed the return of the sunshine.
Our next destination was the (in)famous AJ Hackett bungy jump site at the Kawarau River. Bungy jumping was invented in NZ, so Mr. AA had a jump on his must-do list. I, on the other hand, was not convinced. I felt sufficiently rattled by our other adventures, so I didn’t feel the need to jump off a bridge, thankyouverymuch.
The funny thing about the bungy centre was that tour companies would cart in busloads of tourists to watch the action. At first I thought all the crowds at the overlook must’ve been watching someone they knew, but no. I guess watching strangers jump off a bridge is considered entertainment in and of itself.
The water of the river was an incredibly beautiful, icy shade of blue-green from the springtime glacier melt. (Yes, the pic above was the actual color.) Mr. AA couldn’t have picked a more beautiful place to jump off a bridge, that’s for sure. The bungy jump lasted all of about a minute before he made his way back up the gorge, soaking wet and one bucket list item lighter.
After he dried off and changed, we completed the last little bit of our driving tour to our final NZ destination: Queenstown. Some people say that Queenstown is too overgrown and touristy, but being from a tourist town myself, I didn’t mind it at all. I thought it was a gorgeous and perfect little mountain town. I took the photo above on our walk to dinner.
We didn’t have plans that night, so we scoped out a little restaurant for dinner and got some shut-eye.
Day 10 | Queenstown
For our last full day in NZ, we went out with a bang. We booked a 9-hour tour, the most expensive and longest activity of our entire trip.
We wanted to see the Milford Sound, but the grueling 4-hour drive each way was a little bit too much considering how much driving we’d already done. Instead, we took to the skies. We boarded a small plane at the airport with a handful of other sightseers. We flew over the Southern Alps, which had just been covered in a fresh coat of snow. The morning light cast a beautiful hue over the mountains.
After about 20 minutes in the air, we landed on a small runway next to the Milford Sound and were off to board our boat. The flight company had matched us up with a cruise company that uses considerably smaller boats than the other vessels cruising the Sound. I was happy about this, because the smaller boat was more maneuverable, which meant we could get up close and personal with some of the features of the Sound.
Rudyard Kipling called the Milford Sound the eighth wonder of the world, and it’s easy to see why. Pictures don’t do justice to the majestic scale of the surrounding rock faces. Waterfalls flow out of every corner thanks to the average annual rainfall of about 6.5 meters. We were incredibly lucky to enjoy a sunny day, a truly rare treat at the Sound.
After our cruise, our pilot flew us to Glenorchy, a small town about an hour from Queenstown. We landed in a field of grass(!!) and drove a short distance to central Glenorchy. As a bit of trivia, this was one of the little towns where the cast and crew set up shop when filming the Lord of the Rings. Glenorchy was an absolutely gorgeous, super-tiny town nestled in the mountains at the top of the lake. Perhaps the unusually sunny day was misleading, but I could’ve spent forever in that little town.
We had our lunch next to Lake Wakatipu, enjoying the sunshine and the stunning views. After lunch, we boarded a jet boat to start the second half of our tour. Our guide took us across the lake and up the Dart River. The river was another example of the gorgeous, icy tones that the springtime melt off the glaciers creates. Between the beautiful water, the towering, snow-capped mountains, and the radiant sunshine, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
After our boat trip, we boarded our bus back to Queenstown and we made our way downtown. We had dinner at Fergburger, a cult favorite spot with lines perpetually out the door. The burgers definitely lived up to the hype and were totally worth the long wait. After the burger feast, we walked about 30 minutes back up the hill to our hotel and spent the rest of the night packing our things for our impending departure.
On day #11, we woke up at the ripe hour of 5a to begin our grueling journey home. As a parting “gift,” I woke up with the same head cold that Mr. AA had come down with a few days before. Ugh.
We flew from Queenstown to Auckland, suffered through a 5-hour layover in Auckland then suffered through a 3-hour delay on the tarmac. Our delay meant we missed our flight from California back to Arizona, which added even more time to an already painful day. And of course, I didn’t have nearly enough tissues to last the day, which just added insult to injury.
Finally, after a full 32 hours, we arrived back home in Arizona, and I slept for 13 hours straight.
Overall trip thoughts
Despite our jam-packed itinerary, every single activity and destination of our trip was fantastic. Yes, it would’ve been nice to be able to move at a more leisurely pace, but when time is limited, something’s gotta give!
All of New Zealand, but especially the South Island, had a wonderfully untouched, wild feel about it. All the cities were clean and tidy, and the people were all incredibly helpful, friendly, and light-hearted. It was every bit as delightful as I hoped it would be.
Nevermind the ridiculously long travel day it takes to get there. I’m already pining for another trip to go back to the places I loved and visit the ones I missed.