Ahhh, New Zealand's South Island…land of the long white cloud, lush green forests located beside spectacular glaciers with azure rivers flowing only a short distance out to the ocean. This small island is a place where you can go from rugged alpine terrain to tropical crystal-clear beaches in a day's drive. Home to some of the most scenically diverse landscapes, the South Island is a must-do for anyone looking for the adventure of a lifetime.
For me, there is no question, campervan is the ideal way to travel the island and you'll find the best option in a Jucy campervan. You can't beat the tranquility of sleeping under the starry skies, the freedom of not having to follow a set itinerary, and the joy of slumbering peacefully surrounded by the exceptional natural beauty that New Zealand has to offer. This was our second time traveling in a Jucy Condo. Happy to be traveling again in our favorite home on wheels, we set off to revisit some of our favorite places and explore a few new spots. Here are some highlights from our return trip to the South Island.
Similar to our last visit, we began our journey in Kaikoura. At the top of my list of things to do was another swim with Dolphin Encounters. I struggle to find the words to express how incredible this experience was. The last time we visited, swimming with the dusky dolphins was one of my favorite memories of our trip. The boat takes swimmers out and drops them 5 times among the pods of dolphins. Each swim lasted roughly 5 minutes. After about 3 minutes, the dolphins would lose interest in checking us out, and swim away. This time, we did one drop and the choppy waters were too much for many of the swimmers to stay out. The boat dropped us a second time and because the majority of the swimmers chose to stay on the boat, those who were left in the water (about 5 of us) were allowed to stay in and swim for 30 minutes. The dolphins stayed the entire time, curious and playful swimming circles around us. Above water I could see them jumping right in front of me, while below water they swam so close, seemingly exchanging eye contact. Swimming out in the open ocean with these beautiful creatures will remain one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Arthur's Pass National Park
Following our swim, we hit the road headed for the alpine region of Arthur's Pass National Park. From the tussock covered grasslands to the snowy mountain peaks, Arthur's Pass is one of the island's most scenic drives, stretching from Christchurch to the west coast. We stopped to explore the interesting rock formations at Castle Hill which, according to one of the locals, was named the 'spiritual center of the universe' by the Dalai Lama.
Another interesting stop along the way is the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, a self-guided walk that takes you nearly 600 meters through a pitch black cave in water. If you visit, be sure to bring a warm layer, water shoes, and a headlamp with extra batteries.
Just beyond Arthur's Pass Village is the Punchbowl Track, a worthwhile stop to take a short 45-minute walk to the Devils Punchbowl waterfall.
Franz Josef to Wanaka
Leaving Arthur's Pass, we headed down the west coast with a pit stop for the night in Franz Josef. It's a lovely little town, but I imagine the constant buzz of helicopters taking tourists up to the glacier would get tiresome after an extended period of time. We took the 40-minute walk to the terminal face, before hopping in the campervan and heading south towards Mount Aspiring National Park.
A definite must on the drive to Wanaka is a stop to visit the Haast Blue Pools. It's a quick 30-minute walk through lush, moss-covered trees to the most azure glacial water you'll ever see. Just don't forget your insect repellant (Goodbye Sandfly is a savior). I took my boots off to wade in the water and nearly had my feet chewed off. After the pools we headed into Wanaka.
There is no shortage of places to explore around the Wanaka region. A somewhat quieter version of Queenstown, this lakeside town has plenty to occupy travelers without all the hustle and bustle of its larger neighboring city. The main street is lined with an excellent selection of dining options, as well as a lively bar scene. Our favorite place in town was the Cinema Paradiso. I had heard about this theater during our last trip but, short on time, we weren't able to visit. We made sure to carve out an evening this trip, and watching the New Zealand film "The Hunt for the Wilderpeople" in this cute little theater turned out to be one of our favorite memories. For anyone in the states, this move is a MUST SEE when it comes out in June. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.
The next day, we headed up one of Wanaka's popular day hikes, Roys Peak. This hike is not for the faint of heart, or weak of knees, but is worth every second of the roughly 5-hour trek, virtually straight uphill, to experience the incredible views over Lake Wanaka.
Queenstown, Arrowtown, Glenorchy
Of all the places I have visited on the South Island, no other place stole my heart like the Queenstown/Glenorchy area. It wouldn’t be a true Queenstown experience without feasting on Devil Burger (Fergberger’s lesser known, but equally delicious burger brother) and jumping off a bridge again.
It seems like we never have enough time to experience all that this area has to offer. We did, however, manage to make it out to neighboring Arrowtown, where their Autumn Festival was in full swing. Driving into Arrowtown in fall is like driving into a Bob Ross painting, full of the most vivid shades of red, orange, and yellows I’ve ever seen.
By far my favorite place on the island is the nearby town of Glenorchy. Situated at the head of Lake Wakatipu, this sleepy little place feels like New Zealand’s best kept secret. We had intended to stay only one night and ended up staying three. Even after four days exploring the area, it was still hard to leave. It's no wonder Peter Jackson chose this region for many Lord of the Rings filming locations, and there is no shortage of tourist companies that will take you to the filming spots.
One of the best ways to experience the surrounding landscapes is by air. During both our last trip and this one, our favorite activity was a helicopter tour to see the breathtaking scenery from above.
Making our way back up towards Christchurch, we decided to pay another visit to the Mount Cook region. A noteworthy stop on the drive through the Omarama area are the Clay Cliffs. These interesting pinnacles are reminiscent of the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park.
While in Mount Cook, we did the scenic Hooker Valley track. This hour and a half walk takes you over three swing bridges to the terminus of the Hooker Glacier, with the humbling peak of Mt. Cook towering behind it.
Our final stop was a return to the Rangitata Valley. If you are at all familiar with The Lord of the Rings films, this area was home to Edoras. The desolation of the valley is one of the main reasons I think I am attracted to it. There is nothing to see for miles but fields of tussock surrounded by snowcapped peaks.
At last, it was time to drop off our Jucy Condo, with hearts full of wonderful memories and already a yearning to return for more.