New Zealand Itinerary: South Island Mountains
New Zealand, where do I even start?! Planning a trip to a place as beautiful and expansive as New Zealand is always a huge undertaking. I started planning our trip 8 months before we left and from the beginning I felt a little overwhelmed by the amount of hiking and backpacking options that were available.
One thing that made planning this trip a little easier than most was New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. The DoC puts together incredibly thorough guides for each of the many trails in their national parks. This meant that the main thing I had to worry about was narrowing down which hikes we wanted to do, since everything else was so nicely laid out for us!
We only had two weeks to spend in New Zealand and after a little research we decided to spend our entire time on the South Island. The South Island is more mountainous and home to Queenstown, an adventurous city I’ve been wanting to visit for some time now. We also chose to go in February so we would be there at the height of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer. It seemed like the best bet for favorable hiking weather, plus it aligned perfectly with Alex’s work schedule.
Below are the cities we stayed in when we weren’t hiking. I’ll also include links to where we stayed, where we ate, and which hikes we did in the area.
We flew into Queenstown (airport code ZQN), which might be one of the most scenic airports I’ve ever flown into. There were mountains everywhere! Once in Queenstown, we rented a car from Apex Car Rentals. We had booked a sedan but were upgraded to a Toyota Rav4 when we arrived. The extra space was a nice surprise!
Where we stayed: Rydges Queenstown. This hotel is situated right across the street from Lake Wakatipu and has beautiful views. The rooms are basic, but the location is phenomenal. We were able to walk into the heart of downtown Queenstown in under five minutes and watch a couple of stellar sunsets right from the comfort of our room.
Where we ate: Flame Bar & Grille. This spot was recommended to us by a local and we are so glad we took their advice. We stopped here after our time on the Routeburn and their food and cocktails hit the spot. It is very popular though, we made a reservation for 9pm on a Tuesday and were surprised to find that the reservation was completely necessary!
What we did: From Queenstown we hiked the Routeburn Track in Fiordland National Park. The track is 20 miles (32km) and takes 2-3 days to hike. Since the track is a point to point hike we booked a shuttle with Tracknet to take us to and from the trailheads. It is a 2 hour ride to the Routeburn Shelter from Queenstown, and a 4 hour ride from the Divide Shelter back to Queenstown. We had poor weather on the Routeburn and I know we missed out on some spectacular views, but we still had a great time. You can read my trip report for the Routeburn HERE!
After we hiked the Routeburn Track we spent one more night in Queenstown (again at the Rydges) before driving just over one hour northeast to Wanaka, our launching point for the Gillespie Pass Circuit.
Where we stayed: The best hotel we stayed at on our honeymoon was definitely the Oakridge Resort. It’s close to Wanaka, but is secluded. It feels like an escape but is still perfectly located to act as a basecamp for many outdoor activities. The pool area was the real winner for me. It has seven hot tubs, so you and your group can have your own hot tub. Plus they have a poolside bar so you can have drinks delivered straight to your personal hot tub. It makes for quite a pampered experience.
Where we ate: We didn’t actually eat anywhere special in Wanaka.
What we did: From Wanaka we hiked the Gillespie Pass Circuit in Mount Aspiring National Park. It’s a challenging 36 mile (58km), 3-4 day hike, but highly rewarding. The trail has it all: towering mountains, crystal clear streams, impossibly blue lakes, and waterfalls. This trail ended up being my favorite hike we did in New Zealand and is now one of my favorite hikes of all time! You can read about my experience on the trail HERE.
We did not use Wanaka as a basecamp for the hike we did to Brewster Hut—instead we hiked to Brewster Hut on our way back from Franz Josef to break up the long drive—however, Wanaka is also the perfect basecamp for Brewster Hut.
Right after we exited the Gillespie Pass Circuit we continued northeast for 2.5 hours to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The drive to the national park is absolutely stunning. It passes multiple lakes and the views grow more and more beautiful as you near Aoraki. Luckily, there are many pull-outs along the way where you can stop to stretch your legs and enjoy the stunning views.
Where we stayed: The Hermitage. This hotel is situated at the top of a hill in Mount Cook Village with absolutely jaw-dropping views of the imposing Mount Cook (Aoraki). The hotel is a short, 10-15 minute walk to the heart of Mount Cook Village, but it also has a free shuttle that will take you wherever you need to go in the village. We used it when we arrived to take us to and from the Chamois Bar and Grill when it was pouring rain.
Where we ate: The Chamois Bar and Grill. I’m not sure if it’s because each time we ate here we had just finished a strenuous hike or if the food is really that good, but the food tasted that good. We had burgers and pizza during our stay there and everything we tried was delicious!
What we did: We hiked to Mueller Hut. The hike is short, but strenuous as it climbs 3,400’ (1,036m) in just under 3 miles (5km). It can be done as a day hike or overnight trip, but since we wanted to watch sunset and sunrise up there we chose to camp near the hut. Staying in the hut requires making a reservation on the Department of Conservation’s website far in advance, but camping is a little more flexible. You can pick up tickets to camp from the Department of Conservation Office in Mount Cook Village on the day of your trip. The tickets cost $15/person and allow you to use the hut’s amenities. If you are looking for something a little less time-consuming, there are many other options for shorter trails in this area including the famous Hooker Valley Track, Kea Point, and Tasman Lake.
After our time in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park our itinerary got a little wonky. We initially had planned to continue driving north and hike the Abel Tasman Track before flying out of Christchurch, but as our trip grew closer we realized we wanted to spend more time in the mountains so we changed our plans.
After Aoraki we decided to drive the long 6 hours to Franz Josef so we could spend some time on the Fox Glacier. From there we headed south again and spent a night at Brewster Hut before driving to Christchurch (CHC) and flying home. It would have made more sense to fly out of Queenstown again, but we couldn’t alter our flights without incurring a large fee so we left our flight itinerary as is.
Where we stayed: We stayed in one of the Deluxe Tree Houses at the Rainforest Retreat and the stay was nothing short of luxurious. There was so much greenery outside the treehouse that it felt as if we were in the middle of the jungle, even though there were other treehouses nearby. The staff also brought us breakfast every evening so we would be able to wake up and eat breakfast right away. The breakfast consisted of the freshest, most delicious bread with butter and jams to spread, yogurt, fresh fruits, orange juice, and water. Rainforest Retreat also has a pool, but unfortunately it was under maintenance during our stay so we didn’t get to experience it. Another perk: the hotel is within walking distance of many shops and restaurants in Franz Josef.
Where we ate: We ate a wonderful meal at the SnakeBite Brewery. The restaurant has delicious Asian fusion meals and amazing signature cocktails.
What we did: We went on an all-day adventure tour with Fox Glacier Guiding and we had the time of our lives! We signed up for the “Extreme Fox: All Day Heli Hike” since it was our honeymoon and we wanted to splurge a little. The day started with a short, but stunning helicopter flight from the town of Fox up to the Fox Glacier where we changed into crampons and headed out onto the ice. We spent about 6 hours on the ice, hiking up and over ridges, staring into moulins, and we even tried some ice climbing! At the end of the day our guide lowered us into a moulin (a hole in the glacier formed by water), and helped us climb out. It was exhilarating being in the moulin, with nothing but a black abyss below me, but I’m not sure if ice-climbing is something I’ll add to my list of hobbies. After a full day on the ice we were whisked back to Fox in a helicopter. It was definitely an expensive adventure and if it wasn’t our honeymoon we would have likely opted for one of the shorter hikes, but I’m glad we were able to spend an entire day on the ice!
Our time in New Zealand seemed to fly by at record speed. We had a few moments of rest and relaxation but spent most of it hiking or driving to our next hike. And while we may have checked a few trails off of our hiking to-do list, somehow our list got even longer on the trip as we learned of new hikes from fellow travelers. I’m already looking forward to returning to this beautiful country!