Anyone who has travelled to Queenstown, South Island and surrounding area will tell you that Milford Sound is worth the journey, despite the four to five hour (one-way) drive from Queenstown. (And, we’ve been told, if you can make it to the even more remote Doubtful Sound, do it. It’s just as beautiful as Milford Sound but more quiet, with fewer tourists.) Although we heard the drive is absolutely beautiful, there was just no way we could subject Baby M to nine to 10 hours in a carseat (or, holding her on our laps on a tourbus)! Another option would have been to spend a night at Te Anau (a small town about halfway between Queenstown and Milford Sound). We opted for the more adventurous flight to Milford Sound.
We booked a flight/cruise/flight tour with Milford Sound Scenic Flights for the day after we arrived in Queenstown, and the day before my mom had to leave New Zealand. Full disclosure: There are several companies that offer tours of Milford Sound, with the flight-cruise-flight option. We chose Milford Sound Scenic Flights because (besides their stellar reviews) at the top of their “Our Pilots & Planes” page, is Norman McTabby II (the second!!), who is in charge of passenger meet and greet, and who is also a… cat. It’s hilarious! 😀 😀 😀 (Unfortunately, we did NOT get to meet Mr. McTabby the second.)
The morning of our flight, we were all ready to go. As instructed, an hour before departure, I called the number for the weather hotline. Our flight to Milford Sound was cancelled due to inclement weather at Milford Sound; would I like to re-book on a scenic flight around Queenstown? As we were discussing what we wanted to do, I called back and all flights were canceled; would I like to re-book for tomorrow? It was a bummer that my mom couldn’t join us on our Milford Sound tour, but, having flown the next day, Alex and I agreed that it was probably for the best my mom didn’t go… the flight was scary. Beautiful, yes. Amazing, yes. Thrilling, yes. And, scary.
The next day, we dropped my mom off at Queenstown Airport, and then Alex drove the three of us to Milford Sound Scenic Flights’ office and hangar. We were divided into smaller groups and each assigned a pilot. We then boarded our GA8 7-passenger, single engine Airvan. Once again, we were given headsets, which Baby M just played with and refused to wear.
The flight out of Queenstown was spectacular — seriously, take a look at my photos. I think the flight into/out of Queenstown has been voted one of the world’s most scenic!! Again, we were afforded views of the mountains and lakes that we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten from the road. (We saw lakes on top of mountains!!) As we flew into Fiordland National Park (the largest national park in New Zealand, with Milford Sound being the most famous and visited of the fiords carved out by glaciers a long time ago), things started to get bumpy. Really bumpy. Our plane dropped in altitude several times, and we were moving a lot from side to side. Alex and I started to panic when the plane’s instrument panel started emitting loud beeps. Our pilot remained completely calm throughout the entire flight, continuing with his commentary as if what we were experiencing was a normal, everyday thing (and perhaps it was?).
We flew out to the Tasman Sea on the West Coast of New Zealand, before turning around and flying through Milford Sound. Our plane maneuvered its way over the water, between mountains. We flew past waterfalls. It seriously looked like we were flying into a “Lord of the Rings” movie. It was absolutely un-be-lie-va-ble. When we finally landed at the tiny airport at Milford Sound, Alex and I breathed a collective sigh of relief!
After being constrained on the plane, Baby M was happy to run around on the boat and climb all over the seats. Alex and I enjoyed the views and a few cups of tea. We agreed we should eat our lunches sooner rather than later, in case our flight back to Queenstown was equally as bumpy (it wasn’t).
Around nine in the morning, the Sound was pretty empty. We honestly only saw a couple other cruise boats out. We saw waterfalls and seals sunning themselves on rocks. I loved watching the small planes flying into Milford Sound; I was still in awe that we had just done the same thing!
We were assigned to a larger 13-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan for our flight back. Compared to our tiny plane going to the Sound, this plane felt like a commercial jet! Once again, we flew out to the Tasman Sea before turning around to go back to Queenstown. The jagged coastline looked completely uninhabited. Flying into Queenstown was just as breathtaking as flying out. Alex and I agreed: Queenstown really is one of the world’s most beautiful places.
When visiting Queenstown, make every effort to take a day trip (or longer) to Milford (or Doubtful) Sound. There really is no place on Earth quite like it!
| Milford Sound: Fly – Cruise – Fly |
Phone: 0800 207 206 / +64 3 442 3065
One complaint everyone has about Milford Sound is how commercial it’s become, and how people show up to Milford Sound for the scenic cruises by the busload. I was worried about that when booking, so I asked when it was the least busy (since Milford Flights offers flight tours departing Queenstown at 8 AM, 10 AM, and 2 PM — October through April). The reservations agent said leaving Queenstown at 8 AM is ideal, because we’d get to the Sound before 9 AM, and by the time we finished the cruise, around 11:30 AM, and were heading back to Queenstown, the big bus tours would be arriving at Milford Sound.
While there was complimentary coffee, tea (Alex and I loved the strong tea with milk, favored by the British, etc.), and water on board, there wasn’t food available for purchase. You can either bring your own, or do what we did: reserve a picnic lunch through Milford Flights for only $16 NZD per person (it was a really good bagged lunch, too). Make sure you reserve the lunch with your trip reservation — that way you’ll be handed a bagged lunch prior to boarding the cruise. Some people on our flight wanted to order the lunch the day of, and weren’t able to.
Due to the unpredictable New Zealand weather, make sure you give yourself several days in Queenstown, and book your trip for the first day you have free. That way, you have the opportunity to go to Milford Sound on a later day if your tour is cancelled.
If you have an (over)active toddler, make sure you bring a baby carrier. It was useful for the cruise because we were able to go outside on the deck without having to worry about Baby M falling overboard.
Read the summary of our New Zealand South Island trip: Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island
Read about our glacier helicopter tour: Glacier Helicopter Tour & Snow Landing
Read about our whale watching flight: Wings over Whales, Kaikoura
My friends Bridget and Jenny both highly recommended a helicopter tour over Fox Glacier and/or Franz Joseph Glacier on the South Island. Prior to New Zealand, I’d never been on a helicopter before (Alex did a helicopter ride in Hawaii over a decade ago). I was slightly nervous, so what did I do? Google ‘helicopter’+’new zealand’+’crash’ of course. It didn’t make me feel good that there was a helicopter crash on Fox Glacier in November of 2015. But, I made sure to NOT book a tour with that company, since there are so many to choose from (it took some research to figure out which tour company was involved in the crash… because the company ‘rebranded’ itself last year with a new name). And Alex and I vowed to NOT do the tour in the case of inclement weather.
Well, we needn’t have worried. We experienced TERRIBLE weather the entire time we were staying at Fox Glacier town. Rainy and very foggy. Our helicopter tour was cancelled, rescheduled a few times, and cancelled again. The morning we left Fox Glacier (and drove 500 miles — road distance, to only really travel 20 miles — actual distance), it was still drizzling and foggy. As we drove away from the ‘Southern Alps,’ the skies began to clear and the sun finally made its appearance.
After we arrived at Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, we made a reservation for a 45-minute ‘Glacier Highlights’ helicopter tour with Mount Cook Ski Planes and Helicopters for the following day. Luckily, we had a beautiful, sunny day for our helicopter ride!
When Alex and I arrived at Mt. Cook airport, we were told our tour was being combined with another tour. And, we lucked out!! We paid for the shorter, 45-minute tour which only tours the nearby Tasman Glacier, but we went on the 55-minute ‘Grand Circle’ tour, which also included Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier on the west side of the Southern Alps! I also lucked out because we were assigned seats based on weight/size, and I got to sit in the front row, on the left side (so I had an unobstructed view from the front and side windows)!
On our way out to the glaciers, we flew over the Tasman Glacier Lake (gray due to the sediment runoff from the Tasman Glacier), and close to Aoraki/Mt. Cook (the tallest mountain in New Zealand). We then flew over Fox Glacier (much better view than from our hike to the glacier terminal face!!) and Franz Joseph Glacier — the density of the packed snow and the sunlight made the snow look blue. The crevasses (deep fractures, or breaks, in a glacier’s ice sheets) looked gigantic (as you can tell from our pictures).
The pilot made a snow landing on top of Tasman Glacier. We were able to see a snow plane take off from the same glacier (really cool to watch). I expected it to be cold on the glacier, but it was just past noon on a sunny day, and it was quite warm! We walked around for a bit and chatted with the pilot. (We swear, New Zealand must have the highest number of pilots per capita!)
We then took off and headed back to Mt. Cook airport. I loved every minute of our helicopter tour. It was incredible to see the Southern Alps up close and up high! It was truly a unique experience! As when people say, “When in Rome…,” I say, “When in New Zealand, do a helicopter tour. You won’t regret it!”
| Mount Cook Ski Planes and Helicopters |
phone: 0800 80 07 02
[Side note: I’m not getting into politics here, but I just found this funny. During our time in New Zealand, I kept saying “Fox and Franz,” referring to the glaciers, but I kept hearing “Fox and Friends” the morning show.]
To read about our South Island itinerary: Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island
My high school had a planetarium, and I took a semester-long astronomy class. At the time, I could name a bunch of stars and constellations, and learned how to navigate based on the position of the moon and the North Star. I’ve since forgotten almost everything I learned… but, I still find astronomy very interesting.
Alex and I signed up for the Earth & Sky Experience, an observatory tour (which our friend Tricia recommended), near Lake Tekapo on the South Island of New Zealand. When I asked a TripAdvisor forum about it, all the visitors highly recommended it but the locals said they “didn’t get what all the fuss was about” and it “wasn’t worth taking a detour to Lake Tekapo just for the tour.” But, since Alex and I are such nerds, AND we were going to be spending a few days at Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park (about an hour’s drive away), AND my mom was there to stay with Baby M after we put her to bed, we decided, why not?
Having lived in a megacity like Seoul for the past almost four years, Alex and I hadn’t had a chance to see many stars (not just because of the light pollution, but actual air pollution). So, any place in New Zealand was going to be better for stargazing than Seoul, let alone the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, one of the world’s largest dark sky reserves. What’s a dark sky reserve? It’s an area that has superb sky quality (clean, clear air) that is protected from light pollution. What exactly does this mean? Well, when we were driving at night, it was kind of scary because the roads were pitch black. No streetlights. And walking around our motel complex, there were very few street lamps. It was dark. But, then we looked up into the night sky, and were completely wowed. We’d never seen so many stars before. And the Milky Way! It was surreal.
First, we had to be a little careful in picking a night for our 2-hour University of Canterbury Mt. John Observatory tour (Earth & Sky also offers a shorter tour of Cowan’s Observatory). The night sky is the darkest during a new moon (when the moon isn’t visible), so the stars and Milky Way are the most visible. During a full moon, the luminosity of the moon washes out the Milky Way and fainter stars. We actually planned our itinerary a little around phases of the moon in April, so that we weren’t at the dark sky reserve during the full moon! Of course, we didn’t have that much leeway, so we settled on a third quarter (half) moon.
Because the time of sunset changes (slightly) each day, we were informed of our departure time the day before our tour. Alex and I helped my mom put Baby M to bed, and then drove over to Earth & Sky’s Lake Tekapo office (an hour away). We were given a quick introduction, along with red-light flashlights (red is the color that is easiest on eye strain, especially in contrast to the dark — Alex explained that’s why BMWs use red for its dashboard display, and the best to prevent light pollution), and arctic parkas (we were told to dress very warmly, as it gets really cold up at Mt. John Observatory — Alex and I were both wearing thermal underwear and puffy coats… we probably could have done without the thermal underwear, haha!).
Halfway up to Mt. John Observatory, the bus driver turned off the headlights (and of course there weren’t any streetlights). It was a very scary ride in the pitch dark, but the bus driver said he relies on his experience and the bumps in the road to guide him! We met our tour guide, a spunky grad student from Singapore. She led us (carefully) to the stargazing area, where we divided up into groups of three.
We enjoyed hot chocolate while learning about the Southern hemisphere’s Southern Cross (we were surprised to learn that, unlike the North Star, which shows you directly where due North is, you have to “connect the dots” by drawing two lines to find due South — trust me, it’s much easier to find due North!!). We also learned about how stars that look close to each other (by the naked eye) aren’t necessarily close to each other (I think the example used was: Alpha and Beta Centauri look to be close together, but Alpha Centauri is actually closer to Earth than Alpha Centauri is to Beta Centauri…). Since Mt. John Observatory is actively being used for research, we were able to look through a few world-class telescopes to see far away stars, constellations, and nebula (with help from grad students — what a cool place to do research!). We had about an hour of really good stargazing, before the moon rose into the night sky, and washed out many of the stars (despite it being a half moon!). But, then we got to see the moon through a telescope, which was pretty neat!
[If you have a digital-SLR camera, make sure you bring it. One of the guides will hookup your camera to the telescopes so that you can capture some amazing photos! We only had our iPhones… And flash photography is obviously not allowed.]
Whether you’re into astronomy or you just want a good guided stargazing and observatory tour, check out the Earth & Sky Experience!
| Earth & Sky Experience |
FYI: They cancel tours due to inclement weather and high winds, but not for cloud coverage (with the reason being you can still learn about their observatory, the telescopes and stars).
| Earth & Sky Astro-Cafe |
The day after our star gazing tour, we drove up, during the day, to the Astro-Cafe at Mt. John Observatory. The view of surrounding Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki is spectacular! And the coffee drinks were pretty good too, although I was slightly disappointed that the barista didn’t make an astronomy-related pattern on our drinks… (I’ve seen some pictures of a planet or stars, haha)
FYI: The road leading up to Mt. John Observatory is private, so you’ll have to pay 8 NZD to drive up. Alternatively, you could hike up…
To read about our New Zealand South Island itinerary: Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island
The good thing about having friends who recently visited a place that you plan on visiting, is that it saves you a lot of time otherwise spent on researching the destination. “Wings over Whales was such a unique experience,” my friend Tricia told me. After reading TripAdvisor reviews that confirmed her experience (trust but verify?), we booked three seats aboard a whale watching flight (Wings over Whales also does scenic flights of the coast near Kaikoura). Kids 3 and under fly free with an adult, as long as they are seated on an adult’s lap.
[Side note: These ‘excursions’ (flights, helicopter tours, etc.) can quickly add up. To help us decide, Alex and I tried to think of the next time we would be able to do these things, in New Zealand, and chose which activities to do. In the end, we felt the excursions we did were well worth the money spent, and we’ll cherish these memories more than any souvenir we could have purchased.]
Like I mentioned in my previous posts, the quaint coastal town of Kaikoura was hit hard by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake from November 2016. When we were there in April, the town was still struggling (it seemed like half the shops downtown were boarded up — some closed permanently while others were in the slow process of rebuilding). In fact the tourism board’s slogan is “Yes, We’re Open.” Unfortunately, a lot of the reason why many tourists visit Kaikoura is for the scenic coastal highway running from Christchurch in the south through Kaikoura and north into wine country (Tricia, who went before the earthquake, said this stretch of road was one of her favorites). Honestly, while Kaikoura is beautiful, and we very much enjoyed our whale watching flight, I’m not sure I’d recommend the detour (especially since, at the time, the roads going north were all closed) to go to Kaikoura if the coastal roads aren’t open.
| Wings over Whales |
We were instructed to arrive a little earlier than our flight time, to check in (and weigh in) and watch a short informational video on safety and whales. Since the planes are small, each person is guaranteed a window seat. We were given life vests and ear muffs (Baby M was given a pair of small ear muffs, which she refused to wear after a few minutes). The ear muffs were more to hear the pilot talking rather than noise protection (the noise wasn’t that loud).
We flew on an 8-seater Gippsland Airvan. It was my first time on a small plane! At first we flew over Kaikoura and the coast (beautiful, crystal clear water) before heading to sea. The pilot started circling around a whale watch boat, and that’s when we spotted our first sperm whale. I’ve been on a few whale watching cruises (the last one in Maine, where halfway through, I was left clutching a bag of Alex’s puke… not fun!!) before but it was neat to see whales from a different perspective (you can see the blow hole from the air!). [You can also do a whale watching boat tour, but that’s usually three hours long, versus a 30 minute flight, and you’re more likely to get seasick! Plus, I think the minimum age for the whale watch boat tour was eight, so we couldn’t have taken Baby M.]
The pilot did some very tight circles around the first whale, before it submerged. We then went a little further and spotted our second whale. The pilot again did some tight maneuvers so that we could see that whale, but, afterwards most of us agreed that that was when we started feeling nauseous… Luckily, we headed back to land before any of us actually got sick!
Other things you can do in Kaikoura include nature trails, visiting the seal colony (you can get really close and see seal pups!), and enjoying good seafood. We visited the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ Kiosk, a food caravan that sells all kinds of fresh seafood. You purchase whatever you want (we opted for a few scallop platters and a lobster/crayfish), and can either take your food to go, or sit at one of the little tables along the side of the road. (Those of you traveling with young kids, beware! You may want to take your food and eat elsewhere, in case you have a little wanderer trying to walk into the street!)
If State Highway 1 (the scenic coastal road) is open going into and out of Kaikoura, definitely consider making a trip out there. And if you’re into whale watching or scenic flights, definitely consider Wings over Whales. We enjoyed our 30 minute tour. It was one of the highlights of our trip to New Zealand!
To read more about our farm stay experience in New Zealand: Pete’s Farm Stay
To see our New Zealand South Island itinerary: Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island
Our friends Tricia and Tyler strongly recommended spending a night at Pete’s Farm Stay (just a half hour outside of Christchurch, NZ), to experience a “truly Kiwi experience” and so that Baby M could pet some animals. At first I balked at the price (expensive, if you’re just thinking about it as an accommodation), but I figured it was worth it for the experience (and plus, our stay would fall on my birthday, so… ‘treat yourself’ — or ‘treat yo’ self’ for all you “Parks and Recreation” fans).
We arrived in Christchurch during what appeared to be a typhoon. The rain was coming down nonstop and blowing sideways. We were told the weather wasn’t typical for New Zealand in April… When we arrived at Pete’s Farm Stay in the afternoon, the rain had sort of subsided, but the grounds were too wet for the “sheep shearing demo,” which was pushed to the following morning.
At Pete’s Farm Stay, we were greeted by Pete, who along with his wife Gaye, run the farm stay. (It seems there isn’t much money to be made from raising sheep to be sheared — when they’re young, and then sent to slaughter — when they’re around 8 years old, so Pete and Gaye decided to open up their farm and home to tourists.) Pete showed us our 2-bedroom self-contained cottage. Luckily it was nice and toasty (remember, autumn starts in April in the southern hemisphere!). At Pete’s recommendation, we went into the nearby town of Rangiora (about a 12 minute drive) for dinner and the supermarket.
The following morning, we woke up to the brightest, bluest skies. If not for the wet grounds, there was no evidence at all of a typhoon! We had breakfast (cereal, toast, fruit, coffee/tea and delicious homemade blueberry muffins) at Pete and Gaye’s house. The other guests were discussing their plans for the day, and wondering about the road conditions due to the rain and mudslides. We knew that parts of the coastal highway Route 1 were still closed north of Kaikoura (our next destination) due to an earthquake in the fall of 2016, but we didn’t know that the highway was also closed south of Kaikoura due to the rain. After much debate (Gaye said she wouldn’t “chance it”), and checking New Zealand’s Transport Agency website (http://www.journeys.nzta.govt.nz/traffic/) we decided to take the inland road to Kaikoura (it actually wasn’t that bad… such some construction, and segments where only a single lane of traffic was allowed through).
After breakfast, we went out to hand feed and pet the alpaca (they are super soft and fluffy!). Baby M enjoyed petting their heads. The alpaca looked pretty intelligent, compared to the sheep. (It’s something about their eyes… Alex and I thought the sheep all had eyes which looked… dead. It was actually kind of creepy.) The sheep, by comparison, were not as soft as the alpaca… in fact, their wool was stiff and matted! Next, we followed Pete and his dog (also called Pete… but human Pete made sure to let us know that Pete the dog was NOT a pet, but a working farm dog) into the fields. We watched in awe as Pete the dog ran laps around all the sheep and herded them into a barn.
Once in the barn, Pete picked one sheep to be sheared. Pete told us that back in his prime, he was able to shear something like one hundred sheep in an 8-hour shift (it may have been 200… I should have written this down!). He asked us to guess how much a kilogram of wool sold for in the market (and again, I can’t quite remember, but it was much lower than expected!!). After Pete sheared off a little wool, the wool was passed around. It was surprisingly oily! Yes, I (along with any breastfeeding mom, I’m sure!) have used Lansinoh lanolin cream before, but I never made the connection. Lanolin, also called wool grease, is secreted by a sheep’s glands, and it helps protect them from the cold/moisture (it’s waterproof!). After a few minutes, Pete had finished shearing the sheep.
Back at the house, Gaye showed us hand-knit products made from their own alpaca and sheep wool. (Yours truly purchased a cute knit alpaca wool hat.) They also sell all sorts of lanolin creams and moisturizers. We let Baby M play at the little playground (great for kids — swings, slide, and small trampoline) before loading up the car to drive (the less scenic route) to Kaikoura.
If you’re in the general Christchurch area, and want to have a “traditional” NZ experience, consider spending one night at Pete’s Farm Stay. The sheep shearing and sheep herding demos are included with your stay, as are hand feeding the animals and a hearty continental breakfast.
| Pete’s Farm Stay |
45 Mairaki Road, Fernside, Rangiora, 7471, New Zealand
To read more about our New Zealand trip:
New Zealand is a small country, and although the North Island is more populated, the South Island is the larger of the two. Even still, the South Island is only 840 km/522 mi long and 180 km/111 mi wide. When we returned our rental car at the Queenstown airport, we had put roughly 3,000 kilometers on it. We didn’t drive long distances each day (in fact, during trip planning, I tried to break up the trip into days of driving and days with no driving), but because many of the roads are only two lanes (single lane each way) with an absurd number of single lane bridges* (watch out for these and don’t forget to yield!), it took us quite a while to get to each destination.
During our 18 day trip, we stayed in 11 different towns/cities. I would recommend spending even more time (at least three weeks) on the South Island, as there is so much to see and do. And, I would definitely recommend renting a car, not only for the flexibility (Alex and I refuse to travel with tour groups), but also because there is basically no public transportation in many places in New Zealand.
[Quick Trip Itinerary — Tune in for blog posts for each location]
Day 1: Arrived at Christchurch airport; called Aerodrive from complimentary airport phone for pickup and picked up rental car.
| Hotel | Airways Motel Christchurch
| Bed and Breakfast | Pete’s Farm Stay
Day 3: Farm tour; sheep shearing and sheep dog demo. Drove to Kaikoura (unfortunately, the coastal road, which I hear makes the drive to Kaikoura worth it, was mostly closed due to a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the area back in November of 2016).
| Airbnb | Kaikoura Phoenix Palm
Day 4: Wings over Whales whale watch flight (also highly recommended! Plus, you get (slightly) less sick from a helicopter than a boat); explored (small) downtown Kaikoura (even though half the shops were still closed from the earthquake).
| Airbnb | Kaikoura Phoenix Palm
Day 5: Drove through hot springs town of Hanmer Springs (known for jet boating, bungee jumping and other outdoor activities) and had lunch. Beautiful drive to Lake Rotoroa (our stopping point on way to Abel Tasman).
| Airbnb | Lake Rotoroa Holiday Home
Day 6: Made our way to the north coast of the South Island and Abel Tasman National Park. Walked along beach and settled for night in nearby town of Motueka.
| Airbnb | Motueka by the Marina – Cosy Beach Cottage
Day 7: Walked along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track — beautiful even though it was raining for most of the day. We didn’t hike for as long as we would have liked, but it’s hard carrying a 30 lb toddler! Drove along the coast towards Nelson. There are a bunch of wineries in this region — if you have time, I recommend stopping by a place for lunch and tasting.
| Airbnb | Motueka by the Marina – Cosy Beach Cottage
Day 8: Long-ish drive to the west coast. FYI: There are no signs informing you that you are about to pass the last gas station (for 100 km!!) in New Zealand… at least not on the smaller roads. We kept passing small towns with boarded-up gas stations, but could NOT find a gas station. We stopped in Punakaiki (known for its Pancake Rocks and blowholes) at the visitor center to inquire about gas stations (this, when the warning light in the car came on), but were told the closest gas station was in Greymouth (a big town, 40+ km away) AND that there were several tourists who had stopped by, looking for gas. She even called down to a nearby holiday trailer park to inquire if anyone had a spare fuel tank of gas (no dice).
We drove all the way to Greymouth, coasting as much as we could, crossing our fingers that the fuel indicator (telling us how many more kilometers until empty) was accurate. We made it to the gas station… with 20 km to spare. Phew. Spent the night in small town (not even sure I’d call it a town) of Dunollie.
| Airbnb | Dunollie Idyllic Farm Cottage & Petting Zoo
Day 9: Explored town of Hokitika and drove to nearby Hokitika Gorge (the water, which is normally turquoise, was grey, perhaps because of the cloudy/rainy day). Drove to Fox Glacier, in the “Southern Alps.”
| Hotel | The Westhaven Motel Fox Glacier
Day 10: Our helicopter tour of Fox Glacier (and surrounding Franz Joseph Glacier) was canceled, rebooked twice, and canceled again, due to heavy rain and fog. Since it was our only full day in Fox Glacier, we braved the weather and hiked up to Fox Glacier’s terminal face (well, as far as we were allowed to go). Due to climate change and time, the glacier has receded quite a bit.
| Hotel | The Westhaven Motel Fox Glacier
Day 11: Our helicopter ride this morning was also canceled. We weren’t surprised, since it was so rainy and cloudy. As we drove towards Mt. Cook National Park (only 20 miles away, but since it was across a mountain range, we ended up driving 500 miles to get there), the sky cleared up and we enjoyed a beautiful, sunny drive. We drove through Wanaka, a beautiful resort town. It was bizarre to us because we associate April with spring but in fact, it was fall, and the leaves were a beautiful, deep, red.
| Hotel | Mount Cook Lodge and Motel
Day 12: Hooker Valley Hiking Track at Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Our friends Tricia and Tyler highly recommended this trail (and they also did it with a baby). At night, Alex and I drove down to Lake Tekapo for Earth and Sky Experience: Mt. John Observatory Tour. This was one of the highlights of our trip (especially since we’re such nerds) — we learned so much about the Southern sky. The Lake Tekapo region is one of the world’s only ‘dark sky reserves,’ meaning that light pollution is restricted making the sky incredibly dark, with the most stars you’ll ever see in your life (seriously!!). I’ve never seen the Milky Way so clearly before! Breathtaking even if you don’t go on the tour! Just go outside at night, and look up!!
| Hotel | Mount Cook Lodge and Motel
Day 13: Tasman Glacial Lake hike in the morning. In the afternoon, Alex and I finally got to go on a helicopter tour (my first!). We were so glad we did this particular tour, because we got to see Fox Glacier, Franz Joseph Glacier, AND we had a snow landing on Tasman Glacier. It was an incredible experience, and we LOVED every minute of it!! In the late afternoon, we drove back to Mt. John Observatory for the great view, even during the day (since it’s located so high up).
| Hotel | Glentanner Park Motel
Day 14: Drove to Queenstown (beautiful drive) and a nice, relaxing evening.
| Airbnb | Dalefield Mountain View Lodge
Day 15: Our Milford Sound flight/cruise/flight (Milford Sound Scenic Flights) was canceled due to bad weather at the Sound. [The weather in New Zealand is unpredictable, so always schedule in an extra day or two if you have a must-do activity…] We drove along the windy road to Glenorchy at the very tip of Lake Wakatipu (yet another beautiful drive). Then we explored Queenstown (honestly one of the most beautiful — I feel like I’m using the word ‘beautiful’ a lot here — place Alex and I have ever been to) downtown.
| Airbnb | Dalefield Mountain View Lodge
Day 16: My mom had to leave NZ, so she unfortunately missed our Milford Sound tour. This was yet another highlight of our trip. Sure, we thought our tiny plane was going to crash into the mountains or ocean, but the views were out of this world (it seriously felt like we were flying into a scene of “Lord of the Rings” when we flew into the Sound!!).
| Airbnb | Dalefield Mountain View Lodge
Day 17: The Otago region (where Queenstown is) is known for its wine, especially pinot noir. We splurged for an incredible lunch at Amisfield Winery and Bistro (reservations required), then drove around other wineries. (Highly recommend going on a tour so you don’t have to worry about drinking and driving!!)
| Self-contained Cottage | Burn Cottage Retreat
Day 18: More wineries and a cheesery (yes, this is a thing!!). Alex and I could have spent a week in this region!
| Self-contained Cottage | Burn Cottage Retreat
Day 19: Had lunch in nearby Arrowtown, a quaint, gold rush town, before heading to Queenstown Airport.
* You really should be careful with these single lane bridges. Sometimes you’re driving at a pretty good speed and then have to brake quite suddenly to yield to traffic in the opposite direction. (It’s a good idea to slow down on these bridges anyway.) When we returned our rental car, we were told that a couple (non Kiwis) had just totaled their car because they didn’t know to yield on a single lane bridge and drove head-on into another car… Yikes!
I did extensive research on car rentals in New Zealand, mostly combing through TripAdvisor forums. Hertz and Avis are top tier rental companies, and their prices reflect that. A lot of people rent from Apex, a second tier company. We ended up going with Aerodrive, a relatively new, no-frills company with great rates (they were hungry for business). We had a great experience with them (we rented a car seat for Baby M, along with a portable wifi through them too) — would highly recommend!
We tried to stay in AirBnbs as much as possible, because we wanted the larger space (three adults and one toddler). New Zealand has plenty of decent, budget motels (with mini kitchenettes), which we opted for in places without AirBnb accommodation.
Stay tuned for more on our trip to New Zealand! 😀
To read about our recent trip to Sydney: Sydney: Our New Favo(u)rite City