New Zealand: South Island

New Zealand: South Island

South Island's Natural Wonders

Fly in/out: Christchurch International Airport (CHC)

Recommended ages: 10 and up

Ball Park Price: $4,000/person for up to five travelers (airfare not included)

Best Season: Summer (December-April)

Time Zone: EST +16

Currency: New Zealand Dollar


DAY ONE: Fly into Christchurch International Airport (CHC). Pick up rental car at airport. Stop at the International Antarctic Center in Christchurch, (located near the airport) an interactive museum to experience the Antarctica. Tour through the “Garden City” of Christchurch and check into the luxury boutique George Hotel.

New Zealand by the sea

DAY TWO: Drive to a little township called Akaroa, Canterbury’s oldest village. En route, visit Birdlands Sanctuary, a 22-acre property with a natural New Zealand native bush and river with many species of free ranging birds. Go to Hilltop Tavern to view the spectacular Akaroa Harbour. Arrive at Akaroa Harbour Cruises office on the Main Wharf for a 2-hour Black Cat Harbour Cruise. Spot the playful Hector’s Dolphin, Little Blue Penguin, Spotted Shag and Fur Seals. Explore Akaroa’s Museum and Akaroa’s harbor.

DAY THREE: Take a scenic drive to the seaside town of Kaikoura. Take a 3-hour Whale Watch tour. Depending on the season sightings can vary but often include Giant Sperm Whales, New Zealand Fur Seals, pods of Dusky dolphins and the endangered Wandering Albatross. Kaikoura often hosts the world’s largest dolphin-the Orca- and home to the smallest and rarest-the Hector’s. Explore the beautiful scenery of Kaikoura and head back to Christchurch.

River out of the mountains

DAY FOUR: From George Hotel, take a transfer to the Railway Station to connect with the Tranz Alpine train to Greymouth. The approximately 4 hour train ride is one of the most scenic in the world. In Greymouth, pick up another rental car and take a Black Water Rafting adventure at Wild West Adventures. Experience 5 hour cave rafting adventure based on the South Island’s West Coast. Afterward, drive to Hokitika, the gateway to the South Westland World Heritage National Park. Check in at Awatuna Homestead.

DAY FIVE: Drive to Franz Josef Glacier and drop off luggage at the Te Waonui Forest Retreat. Take a Heli hike tour that includes a exciting scenic helicopter ride to the top of a glacier and take a two hour guided hike amongst some of the most pristine and awe inspiring glacier scenery available. Next, stop at the Glacier Hot Pools in the heart of Franz Josef township on Cron Street. Relax in the hot water. Head to Te Waonui Forest Retreat for a fabulous dinner.

DAY SIX: Drive five hours to Queenstown. Stop at the World Heritage Park information office and drive and hike through the picturesque Mount Aspiring National Park. Drive to Millbrook Resort in Queenstown and check in.

Queenstown New Zealand

DAY SEVEN: Day of leisure to explore this stunning alpine area. Visit Arrowtown, a charming gold rush village, the Kiwi House and Kiwi Birdlife Park for the best places to see the Kiwi bird.

DAY EIGHT: Ride the Queenstown Skyline Gondola, take a 4-line Ziptrek tour overlooking Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu with Ziptrek Ecotours. At the top of the Gondola, stop at Skyline Restaurant for dinner. Prior to dinner, take a Luge Ride as part of the dinner package.

DAY NINE: Take an all day Milford Sound Cruise through Real Journeys. Board a luxury glass roofed coach in in Queenstown. On reaching Milford Sound, board the Milford Sovereign for a cruise the full length of Milford Sount to the Tasman Sea. Return to Queenstown on a sightseeing flight from Milford Sound.

DAY TEN: Drive to the historic city of Dunedin. Dunedin’s Otago Peninsula is renowned for hosting the worlds only mainland breeding colony of the northern royal albatross and being home to the world’s rarest penguin, the yellow-eyed penguin. Also see various species of seals, sea lions and pelagic birds. Check in at Fletcher Lodge.

DAY ELEVEN: Take a full day Otago Peninsula Experience tour through Classic Jaguars. Take a guided tour of Larnach Castle, discover craft shops, view the Southern Fur Seals at Pilot’s Beach and view Otakau Marae & Albatross Center. Then onto the Yellow Eyed Penguin Tour at Penguin Place, a private conservation effort to save one of the world’s most endangered penguins, the Yellow Eyed, from extinction.

Dundedin, Yellow Eyed Penguin
Yellow Eyed Penguin

DAY TWELVE: Drive to Mount Cook and enjoy the majestic mountains, the snow fed lakes and barren tussock lands-each with its own beauty. En route stop and visit the Blue Penguin Colony near Oamaru. Mount Cook in Mackenzie Country is New Zealand’s highest mountain. Stop at Mount Cook National Park and enjoy any one of their breathtaking hikes and trails. Check in at Hermitage Hotel in Mt. Cook National Park.

DAY THIRTEEN: Take a ½ day Glacier Boat Cruise with Glacier Explorers. By boat, explore the huge dripping iceface of New Zealands largest glacier. Watch and listen to ice melting before your eyes in this tranquil glacial lake nestled in the Southern Alps of New Zealand.

DAY FORTEEN: Drive to Christchurch and stop to take in majestic views of mountains and lakes. Stop at the Church of the Good Shepherd and magnificent views of Lake Tekapo. Stop in the city of Geraldine, and visit the Barkers shop and sample their wonderful jams and pickles. Check back in to the George Hotel and enjoy the casual dining at “50 on Park” for dinner.

DAY FIFTEEN: Drive to Christchurch International Airport and head home.

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Vacation Highlights

    New Zealand Mountains

  • This trip offers a little bit of everything for the adventurous family for all levels of adventurers. Name any outdoor activity-the South Island has it. New Zealand was one breathtaking scene of natural wonders after the other. With tourism being a huge part of New Zealand’s economy, it was great to see every tour operator had a high level of sensitivity for the preserving and respecting the beautiful environment.
  • We used our first few days in Christchurch as home base to see Akaroa and Kaikoura. The day trips of Black Cat cruising fulfilled the need to see wildlife plus many sea caves and volcanic cliffs. The whale watching cruise through the beautiful area of Kaikoura was a “marine life mecca.” The Kaikoura coast is world famous for the variety of whale species because of the nutrient rich waters and provides an underwater education on marine life for kids.
  • Watch the video of the Tranz Alpine Express train and you’ll realize this is a “must do” activity. Travel past spectacular viaducts, over bridges and through nineteen tunnels. The narrator on the four hour train trip provided history about who helped create the railway. The afternoon Black Water Rafting adventures was great and allows the family to “tube float” through a cave through slow moving water in the dark to the light of a galaxy of glow worms on the roof of the cave.
  • Exploring the Franz Josef Glacier in the stunning Westland National Park provided more spectacular scenery plus one of our favorite excursions on the Heli hike tour. (See Great Excursions)
  • The stunning area of Queenstown is known as the Adventure Capital of the World. A sophisticated southern resort set in the landscapes of the Southern Alps where we spent a few days exploring the area including the Milford Sound.
  • Dunedin’s Otago Peninsula is renowned for hosting the world’s only mainland breeding colony of the royal albatross and being home to the worlds rarest penguin, the Yellow Eyed Penguin. It is also regarded as New Zealand’s architectural heritage capital. In Dunedin we loved seeing the efforts to keep the yellow eyed penguin from extinction and the personally guided tour of the Larnach Castles in style in a Classic Jaguar.
  • Our last portion of our journey placed us in the backyard of New Zealand’s highest Mountain, Aoraki Mount Cook. This area of Mount Cook and 27 other mountains in this alpine backbone make up the famous Southern Alps. Numerous walks and hikes in the area for viewing the National Park are great for outdoor exercise. The glacier cruises allows you to learn not only about glacier formation they also allow you to get so close you can literally taste it.
Explore South Island

Great Excursions

  • The three hour Whale Watch tour out of Kaikoura (2.5 hour drive from Christchurch) was an ultimate highlight. Year-round whales can be spotted right from the harbor. On the tour we saw Orca, Humpback Whales and Pilot Whales. These giant whales and dolphins were just beyond our boat. It was a surreal feeling to watch all these animals frolic in their natural habitat.
  • The Heli Hike tour included a helicopter ride to the top of the Franz Josef glacier and once donned with glacier boots, ice axe and jackets, we departed the two hour glacier hike and climb. The hike portion took us through ice formations with brilliant blue ice and towering pinnacles. This was one of the most memorable experiences on the trip.
  • Real Journey Milford Sound Scenic Tour included coach, boat and sightseeing flight. To see this area by each of these panoramic views of the fiord, mountains, glaciers lakes and lush rainforests was nothing short of surreal.
New Zealand Great Excursions

Places to stay

  • George Hotel, Christchurch–Wonderful personal service and charming ambience.
  • Awatuna Homestead, Hokitika- Elegant accommodations that provide an escape to a cultural world and beautiful landscape with indigenous plants and giant tree farms Indigenous Native plants and giant tree ferns where you can relax and learn some of the cultural aspects of the Homestead and it’s environment.
  • The George HotelAwatuna Homestead, Hokitika
  • Te Waonui Forest Retreat, Franz Josef Glacier-a 5 star luxurious retreat encircled by rainforest for one night with 2 interconnecting deluxe rooms including dinner and breakfast
  • Millbrook Resort, Queenstown – Set on 500 acres in Queenstown, stay in a three bedroom cottage for four nights in a boutique style accommodation with spacious rooms each with a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains. Voted best golf resort in New Zealand. Has several restaurants, a cafe and bar.
  • Te Waonui Forest RetreatMillbrook Inn
  • Fletcher Lodge, Dunedin- Built in 1923 to serve as the residence of an affluent gentleman, this bed and breakfast is set in a secluded garden. The four guest bedrooms are accessed by a carved staircase and feature private baths.
  • Hermitage Hotel, Mt Cook National Park- Spectacular views of Aoraki Mt. Cook and the surrounding National Park. Two nights in a family two-bedroom with breathtaking views of Mt Cook.
Hermitage Hotel


Skyline Restaurant, Queenstown
Skyline Restaurant, Queenstown

Nestled in each of the harbours or tiny villages are quaint outdoor cafes, bistros, and restaurants that offer lovely views of the South Island. Check out the embedded websites for each location in the Itinerary section. For most breakfasts and dinners, we dined at our hotels which in most cases were included in the hotel package. This was ideal for our tired family at the end of day’s journey. Some of the more memorable dining places included:

  • In Akaroa, for great views and a family-friendly place lunch at the The Hilltop Tavern.
  • In Queenstown, a gondola ride and a luge ride wedged in between ziplining was included in this dining experience at Skyline Restaurant.
  • For an overview of New Zealand’s cuisine and restaurant experience, view Frommers summary.


    Spectacular Scenery

  • The travel agent, Art of Travel, designed a custom itinerary to fit our love of outdoors, animals in their natural habitat, trains and great cars. She was thorough and built this itinerary to also be considerate of a luxurious trip with some moderation.
  • To explore New Zealand’s South Island in a rental car meant some long road trips but resulted in savings in lieu of a private guide or bus. We found driving around the area to be extremely enjoyable with every corner providing great scenery. There were only a few harrowing, narrow roads on some passages but for the most part we were able to navigate on our own pretty well. There were some logistics for picking up and dropping off a rental car near the Tranzalpine Train but it went smoothly.
  • All the operators were extremely friendly and thorough in supplying the necessary equipment or clothing needed for each adventure. However, pack for all temperatures for this trip for the outdoor cool weather on the water and near the glaciers.
  • December and January are peak holiday seasons for locals, so if you’re planning a December trip, book at least 6 months in advance to reserve your favorite hotels and or excursions.
  • If you have less time for a holiday break, fly into Queenstown and begin the itinerary from that point. Even though we loved the harbours out of Christchurch, we felt we could get a full taste of the South Island beginning from Queenstown.
  • Explore this creative and fun website with the host of the Amazing Race sharing his secrets and discounts of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism.

Before You Go

  • Watch the Lord of the Rings where all the movies were filmed in New Zealand. To learn about the specific locations, go to the New Zealand tourism site.
  • Bring a valid passport that must be valid for at least three months past the date you are to leave New Zealand. No visa is required from the U.S. which is a visa-waiver country.

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