New Zealand Outdoors Travel

New Zealand Winter Road Trip

December 19, 2017

At the end of June, we headed to New Zealand for a three-week road trip. Because our time was limited, we only visited the South Island. This incredibly beautiful country quickly captured our hearts!

New Zealand is clean and modern, but also time laid-back and charming. The relatively small size lends itself well to a short holiday. This island nation packs a punch with incredible scenery and a plethora of activities.

An expertly crafted map of our route (anticlockwise)

An expertly crafted map of our route (anticlockwise)

On the Road Again

Campervans are the ideal way to explore New Zealand and rentals are dirt cheap in winter. Before we arrived, I read some horror stories online that made me nervous about our winter road trip plans. However, we had an incredible time! Of course we’re adventurous people who have lived out of a car, but for us the off-season savings were totally worth it.

A big perk of winter travel was the lack of crowds– several times we even had campgrounds to ourselves. We didn’t experience any icy road conditions. And honestly, driving around on the South Island is more scenic than any other road trip I’ve experienced. The landscapes are just incredible!

Meet Thor, our home on wheels for 3 weeks

Meet Thor, our home on wheels for 3 weeks.

The Land of Sheep

We headed north from Christchurch but unfortunately the coastal highway was closed for construction. Instead we took the inland detour which passed through lots of hilly sheep pastures.

When we reached the gorgeous valley of Wairau, we decided to stop early and explore the village. The natural beauty was stunning: colorful trees, a rushing river and green hills, with the mountains on the horizon. What a peaceful place to begin our tour of the island!

The memorial cemetery in Wairau.

The memorial cemetery in Wairau.

Mountains and Hot Springs

Continuing inland, we drove up a long, steep road to hike Mt. Isobel. Though clouds and fog moved in and obscured the view below, we still enjoyed walking along the beautiful mountain ridge. At the summit I was grateful for our Thermos, as we enjoyed some piping hot tea before the descent.

Sitting on Mt. Isobel with my trusty Thermos.

Tea time on Mt. Isobel.

We returned to Thor and drove down to the cute village of Hanmer Springs, which is famous for its resort built on natural hot springs. We spent a couple of hours relaxing here in the various thermal pools. It’s especially enjoyable in winter, though we still had to contend with the cold air when we got out!

One of Hanmer's hot pools. Source

One of Hanmer’s hot pools. Source

To Wine Country

We headed north, where the sheep were replaced with grapes in the famous wine-growing region of Marlborough. Here we enjoyed a fancy wine tasting before making off with a $10 bottle like the backpackers we are.

In Picton, a small town on the northern tip of the island, we took a short hike to view the gorgeous blue-green water of the Marlborough Sounds. At the village bakery, we picked up some fresh bread for a picnic overlooking the harbour.

Detour to the picturesque Lake Rotaroa.

Making friends over lunch.

Water so pretty, water so cold.

At the beach in my winter coat. So weird.

Rain and Beer in the North

For the next 3 days it rained continuously. In Nelson we spent a day visiting the breweries in town and soaking up the chill Kiwi vibes. New Zealand has an incredible craft beer scene and they also produce a lot of delicious ciders.

A short drive along Tasman Bay put us in quaint Motueka, which is filled with art galleries and local handicrafts. There were fruit orchards everywhere, so we stopped at a farm stand to get our share of the harvest. After sampling the different varieties, we picked out some apples, pears and even golden kiwifruit to enjoy on the road.

We drove along the scenic coastal route as far as Takaka, where a break in the rain allowed us to enjoy a short hike up Takaka Hill. The views were stunning! Tasman Bay was a fun area to explore, but we decided to head to the west coast in search of better weather.

Schuyler making pancakes in the rain.

Schuyler making pancakes in the rain.

A gorgeous view of Tasman Bay.

A gorgeous view of Tasman Bay.

Wild Beauty on the West Coast

Our next stop was the city of Westport. Here we visited a colony of fur seals, which was a real highlight of the trip! From the viewing platform, we saw dozens of adult and baby fur seals hopping in and out of the water and sunning themselves on large stones. It was a truly captivating scene.

Further south we walked through a cool geologic formation called the Pancake Rocks, which also had some great history about shipwrecks off the coast. In Greymouth we toured a famous New Zealand brewery called Monteith’s, which also served up excellent fare at their pub.

One of nature's cuties. Source

One of nature’s cuties. Source: Wikimedia Commons

West coast beach.

West coast beach.

Glacier Country

The South Island has two glaciers, both accessed on the west coast. The walk through the valley to Franz Josef Glacier was really beautiful, as there was a river and also many waterfalls. We also stopped to see Fox Glacier. It was an exciting day for me, as I had never seen a glacier before!

However, the signs frequently reminded us of how much the glaciers have retreated in recent history due to climate change, which was disheartening.

A gorgeous lake in glacier country.

A gorgeous lake in glacier country.

On our way to the glacier.

Walking through the valley to Franz Josef glacier.

To the Mountains!

South of the glaciers lies the township of Haast, where the highway turns inland for some of the most scenic driving on the island through the Southern Alps. There were some great photo spots and short walks along this highway.

Wanaka is famous for the surrounding beauty and in winter it’s a skiing hotspot. However, we were put off by the crowds after all our peace and quiet. Queenstown was even more chaotic, but we braved the frenetic parking situation to explore the town and enjoy some gourmet burgers. The setting is truly spectacular, but the town itself is quite touristy.

Our favorite hike was Key Summit near Te Anau. After a steep climb, the view opened up to all the snow-covered mountains around us. We were so thankful for perfect weather to enjoy it!

Alpenglow from Haast.

Alpenglow from Haast.

Schuyler and Lake Hawea, near Wanaka.

Schuyler rocking his flannel at Lake Hawea.

Walking along the ridge to Key Summit.

Walking along the ridge to Key Summit.

Sunset at the lake.

Sunset at the lake outside Wanaka.

Down and Around

The south was particularly cold, as there’s nothing blocking the icy winds from Antarctica. However, the stark landscape here had its own beauty.

We took a nice forest walk in The Caitlins region, and even saw some tiny wild penguins on the coast! New Zealand has more than its fair share of adorable wildlife. On our way up the east coast we spent a rainy afternoon at a fantastic history museum in Dunedin.

Then we stumbled onto race day at the Phar Lap Racecourse in South Canterbury. I was so excited because I had watched the Phar Lap movie often as a horse-crazy young girl. We chatted with a retired sheep farmer named Ian as we watched the turf races from the clubhouse.

Waterfall in The Caitlins.

Waterfall in The Caitlins.


Bleak beauty on the southern coast.

Bleak beauty on the southern coast.

Goodbye, Kiwis

Before we knew it we were back in Christchurch, though not before stopping at the Cookie Time outlet store to pick up a bag of broken cookies from the factory. They are famous for a reason!

In three weeks we successfully circumnavigated the whole South Island. While our road trip turned out differently than expected due to rainy weather and short daylight hours, we had a blast. The nature is stunning, but it’s also a fun and relaxed place to explore the shops and museums, drink a beer and chat with the friendly Kiwi people.

We will definitely be returning to New Zealand!

Winter is for snuggling.

Winter is for snuggling.

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