We took a road trip around the South Island of New Zealand and what can I say about it? We want to move there forever. In fact, much of our nine-day trip involved thinking about and researching way to make that happen. It’s all possible…
Planning to go to NZ, I was expecting this other-worldly, magical place, with jaw-dropping landscapes and incredibly friendly people and, honestly, it delivered on all of that, but not in the same ways I expected. It reminded me so very much of my home state, Colorado, and in fact much of the U.S. mountain/pacific west (home) in general. I appreciated New Zealand more for reminding me that we also come from an other-worldly, magical, jaw-dropping place on Earth. That being said, we can’t wait to visit again (slash move there 😉 ) to see and experience more of the stunning country and it’s people, who are SERIOUSLY so very wonderful.
Let’s get down to it, though, shall we? Here’s the beginning of our EPIC NEW ZEALAND ROAD TRIP! Grab a drink, this is a long one…
Leaving Sydney, we flew into Christchurch on a giant Emirates plane, and can I tell you how lovely it was to fly with them? The flight attendants were all so sweet to Porter! And they had meals ready to go immediately for all the kids on the flight, as well as blankets with little snuggle monsters hugging them, and a flight kit for entertainment. None of that was expected but all of the attention to detail for families made me feel like it was first class experience! Also to note, I have read that Emirates has given people traveling with a car seat for their toddler a hard time, but we experienced none of that, thankfully.
Upon arriving at the Christchurch airport, we called for a pick up to take us to Jucy – to retrieve our motor home for the week, and while waiting grabbed a traveler’s SIM card from a cellular provider kiosk.
***Get yourself a SIM card if you’re going to road trip around. With plenty of data! I used it to download an app to find holiday parks and campsites along the way (Official Camping NZ app, but there are plenty of other similar apps).
We then met with a woman from Jucy who took us down the road to their office to pick up our vehicle. We had a bit of a longer wait there, in which the toddler (frustratingly for us) took his energy out in the lobby, trying to get into everything, before they readied our motor home and gave us the keys. Though we had an early morning flight, the two-hour time difference coupled with the waiting at Jucy left us about 30 minutes of sunlight once we finally got on our way. Not exactly ideal, but what can you do? Luckily I had used the Jucy wi-fi and downloaded maps from that app to find us a holiday park in Christchurch to stay in that night, and after we quickly checked in there we set off to a food plaza for dinner and a quick grocery trip for basics.
*Holiday Parks in New Zealand are overnight accommodations for those on road trips. They mostly have spots for motor homes/campervans, but some (most?) also have rooms, or little cabins, you can rent too. They’ll have bathrooms with showers, kitchens, and laundry facilities, too. We didn’t really plan to stay at a holiday park each night, and were thinking of the more off-the-grid “freedom camping”, but the holiday parks had perks that we were usually looking for. Budget in $30-$50 USD/night for those though… You can read more about the different ways to “camp” on a NZ road trip HERE.
The first night in that motor home was somewhat of a disaster, as we were finding there was a lot wrong with the vehicle. I can’t bore you with the details as I’ve already forgotten, but the list was long and comical enough to think we were being punked, haha. We went back to Jucy first thing the next morning to see what could be done and they were the understanding about our complaints. While waiting for a vehicle swap, they lent us a rental car which we used to zoom to downtown and back. That was cool, because after the delays of the day before, Christchurch was knocked off the itinerary as we wanted to poke around a bit during our first evening in country.
Christchurch is a very nice town that I would immediately say yes to moving to. Downtown is in the middle of being (seemingly completely) rebuilt, with evidence from the 2011 earthquake juxtaposed with modern new buildings and infrastructure. Because I’m a woman and mother, I especially liked seeing lots of women like me out running and walking, as well as a large statue of a breastfeeding mother outside a medical clinic (look, I found it online!), midwifery offices, and nice women’s hospital all on the quick 30 min jaunt around town. We also got a great coffee from a nice couple in a mobile coffee truck, our first of many that fueled our road trip. I love a country that loves coffee 🙂
*Jucy Christchurch, we later found out dropping the motor home off in Queenstown, has a less than stellar reputation for not keeping up standards and service – just a head’s up. Be diligent with looking over your vehicle before you drive off, as Matt found more wrong with the second one we received. Once fixed, we got the kid settled again, safely in his car seat (which fit perfectly safely in the “dining area” of the motor home, as there were two forward facing seats with seat belts), all of our luggage and food switched over, received a reimbursement for the one night – which was very nice – and finally were able to set off.
There is SO MUCH to do and see on just the South Island of NZ that you have to pick and choose for yourself what will be most worth it for your trip. Here’s how our trip looked:
Christchurch -> Lake Tekapo
Go on Pinterest and search for photos of Lake Tekapo… Right? You want to go there right now, don’t you?
When we arrived it was later afternoon and we checked into a holiday park right on the edge of the lake. There is a small row of businesses – cafes, souvenir shops, restaurants, adventure sightseeing tours, hotels, and a convenience store, in Tekapo right next to the lake on the road you come in on. We planned to walk over there for dinner, but first went straight down to the water to take it all in.
Lake Tekapo is next to the Mount John University Observatory, one of four International Dark Sky Reservations in the world. New Zealand is already a playground for milky way photography, and this is quite the place to experiment with that – which I wanted to do; however, my travel tripod BROKE on the flight over! So we moseyed over to the few shops to see if they sold any sort of tripod, but to no avail. If you are looking to do some night sky watching, exploring, or photographing, hit up Earth & Sky in Tekapo to book a tour to the Observatory. We didn’t go on a tour, but I have no doubt it’s worth it! I’ll mention why in a minute.
Behind the shops is another area to go down to the lake, which we did as the sun was going down. Standing on the shore of this glacier blue lake, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, the setting sun created the most amazing pink and purple sky I have EVER seen. The Church of the Good Shepherd sits on the edge of the lake and there was a wedding, or wedding photos being taken, during this sunset which must have turned out SO AMAZING. What a moment!
After a pizza dinner we headed back to the holiday park to clean up for the evening. I spent some time playing around with the camera, trying to get the settings right for some starry photography, and as a family we spent some time down at the water again after dark, before deciding last minute to try to go up to the observatory to try to take pictures.
Ooof. I need some practice with night photography.
We figured, we’re here, let’s not leave with regrets, so we strapped up our pajama-clad toddler (who quickly fell asleep) and drove the 15 minutes to the observatory….which, whomp whomp, is closed to public in the evenings! Duh, should’ve double checked that, but didn’t think about it. Well, the road leading to the observatory has no light pollution, so we pulled over on a couple turnouts to try to take pictures, but I really got nothing of value. A tripod would have helped, but I’m thinking my camera just isn’t powerful enough (?) to get what I was looking for. So, I called it quits and we returned for the night.
The next morning Matt woke up before sunrise to do some fishing, which he’d been looking forward to getting to do while in NZ. He spent a couple early hours down at the water while P and I snoozed, but returned with the news that his travel fishing rod BROKE as well. WTF? What luck we were having with our hobby accessories. We were heading to Wanaka that day, where we could find remedies for both the tripod and fishing pole, so hope was not lost that we could still play during the rest of the week there.
Lake Tekapo -> Wanaka via Aoraki/Mount Cook
On our drive to Wanaka, we stopped at a couple vista points along Lake Pukaki, as well as the Mt. Cook Alpine Salmon Shop at the Lake Pukaki Visitor Center. You can’t bring a fisherman from the PNW to a salmon area (even if it is farmed salmon) and expect him not to get excited!
We picked up some (seriously delicious) smoked salmon which we ate for lunch at the base of Aoraki/Mt. Cook – the highest peak in Australasia – before getting out to explore. Aoraki is the historic Māori name of the mountain peak and is used along with Mt. Cook as the official name.
Without a toddler, we would’ve incorporated a lot of hiking and more outdoor adventures into this trip, but we’re just not at that point right now. Aoraki/Mt. Cook tempted me to call off all plans and just get out on some trails, though! We played around outside as it was a beautiful day, and inside at the National Park Visitor Center/Village there is a little museum of sorts that has some great information, stories, and exhibits about the area.
The drive up to Aoraki/Mt. Cook is UNBELIEVABLE. You follow alongside this massive, glacier fed, turquoise blue lake to the peak, which is a picture perfect vista the entire way, until you get to the base where it just seems to rise from the flat glacier carved valley. It’s incredible!
After our National Park stop, we kept on towards Wanaka. More gorgeous road trip driving, where we passed a rowing center (where I contemplated making the family stop to check it out), and a free salmon feeding farm, which we OF COURSE stopped at.
Who’s more excited?
What do you know, but there was also a coffee shop inside there too. Something about that Pacific lifestyle, on two ends of the Earth; we were among our people.
Arriving in Wanaka a bit later than expected, we found the town packed to the brim with people enjoying themselves outside. Eating, drinking, hanging out, everyone was outside this cute little town despite it being rather cold (for us…desert acclimated). We checked in to another holiday park close to downtown and Lake Wanaka, and found out there were about three big events going on in or around town that week, explaining all the people.
That evening we “stayed in” taking care of laundry and eating a quick dinner in the motor home, but I had been watching this website in the days/weeks leading up to our trip, looking for an opportunity to photograph the southern lights (Aurora Australis). That evening in Wanaka was the strongest I had ever seen the prediction to be, and I got so excited!
The only problem (or 5) was that the sun hadn’t quite set yet, we were in a brightly lit area, in a town, the moon was full, and the strength of the prediction was fading fast. I kept popping out of the vehicle to look around, trying my damndest to get something with the camera while I could, but…nothing. The moment was not ours to be had this time.
We went to bed, knowing we could still possibly catch something as we were going further south, but looking more forward to the next morning as we planned to get into town for breakfast and some important shopping stops while moseying around town.
To be continued…