For years now, I have seen tons of pictures and heard countless stories about how amazing New Zealand is. Friends who have visited have raved about the tiny island is covered in jaw-dropping mountains and valleys, stunning beaches and incredible fjords and lakes. Honestly, I half expected to arrive in Narnia when I got off the plane.
While I didn’t find any talking lions, New Zealand definitely didn’t disappoint and has earned its place as one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever laid my eyes on. It was high on my bucket list, and once I had decided that travel was something I was going to prioritize after taking time off between school and job hunting, NZ became the first destination on my itinerary for my first solo trip.
After weighing back and forth about whether to spend more time on the North or the South Island, I decided that road-tripping through the south would be the best bet for the type of trip I wanted. I flew 13 hours from LA to Auckland, where I got to catch up with an old friend for a day before hopping back on a plane and making my way to Christchurch where I picked up a rental car and started driving South.
After staying a night at the Foley Towers Hostel in Christchurch I started driving to the West Coast of the island, and this is when the weather started to take a turn for the worse. There were reports of strong winds and heavy rains for the next week, which definitely put a damper on my only plans, which included driving, hiking, driving some more, hiking more, etc. I ended up braving the beginnings of the storm and drove through Arthur’s Pass, stopping to see Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall and then on to Hokitika.
Hokitika is a small beach town just north of the Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers known for its Jade production, its glowworms, and its angry seas. It was a nice stop on the way south where I felt like I got to see what parts of rural NZ were like. Hokitika was quiet and quaint, and here I got to meet some really nice gals in the hostel I was staying at, the Mountain Jade Backpackers.
During my time in Hokitika, I started to get pretty lonely. I was just under a week into being solo and I was starting to wonder if this style of traveling was for me. I was feeling down from the bad weather, especially because I had made the stop there to see the bright blue waters of the Hokitika River, which was completely gray from the storm. On the worst day of the passing weather, I decided to leave Hokitika early and head to Wanaka.
After a brutal 8 hours of driving, some food poisoning and a mediocre night’s rest, I woke up on February 5th (my 23rd birthday NZ time!) in Wanaka to clear skies. It was everything I had been hoping for and I spent the entire day in the sunshine. Intent on not wasting a single second, I woke up early and kayaked on Lake Wanaka. After some snacks on the beach, I treated myself to my first ice cream cone of the entire trip and then headed to Diamond Lake track to get a glimpse of the 360-degree views around Lake Wanaka.
Because of the time change, I technically celebrated my birthday twice while traveling. On the 5th in NZ, it was still a day behind in the states, so for the rest of my New Zealand birthday, I took it easy and went to bed early to gear up for my activities the next day. I set my alarm for 2:45 am and made the plan to be on Roy’s Peak track by 3:20 to get started on my sunrise hike.
Don’t get me wrong, I laid in bed and questioned whether I was actually going to get out from under the covers at this ungodly hour, but nothing has ever been more worth it. I strapped on my headlamp and got to it, making a couple of friends along the grueling switchbacks up the mountain.
One of the most memorable moments of my entire trip was meeting a woman from Israel who had separated from her friends and stopped me to look at the stars with her. She asked me where I was from and after sharing formalities, I explained to her that I was celebrating my birthday. Eventually, I ended up passing her on the trail but she continued to tell everyone on the way up that I was celebrating, and when I summited, she had everyone on the top of the mountain sing me Happy Birthday and shared her tea and chocolate chip muffins. The entire thing felt surreal but it’s one of my fondest memories.
The walk down after the sun had risen was incredible. The landscape was completely golden from the morning light and the journey back to the bottom was shared with new pals from around the world.
After the hike, I took it easy, packed my picnic lunch, my books, and my journal into my day pack and headed to the banks of the Hawea River to relax and kick up my tired feet. From there, I checked out the Wanaka Lavender Farm and enjoyed another ice cream on the Wanaka Lake beach.
The rest of my time in Wanaka was very relaxed. The next day I drove to Lake Hawea for a cold plunge in Alpine water, explored the Blue Pools track and then headed back to town to put my pack together for my travels to Queenstown the next day.
I ended up staying for a total of 4 nights in Wanaka and I loved every second of it. I stayed at the Wanaka Bakpaka for one night and the other three at the Flying Kiwi Backpackers. Both were centrally located, clean, and had great staff, but if I were to do it again, I’d suggest staying the entire time at the Wanaka Bakpaka. It’s right on the water and I had such a nice time there meeting the nicest friends from Switzerland and Germany.
From Wanaka, I drove over the Crown Range to Queenstown and started to get a feel for the last town I’d call “home” on my journey through the South Island.
Queenstown definitely felt very different from the rest of the places I had visited, as it was the largest and most touristy destination on my route. I allowed the most time out of my schedule here, and for good reason. There’s so much to do that its borderline overwhelming.
I tried to get some downtime while I was here, reminding myself that even though I was traveling, it was okay to be a little lazy sometimes. I spent time walking around town, sitting/running in the botanical gardens, reading my book on secluded lake beaches and even took a free yoga class at a local Lululemon store.
On the other hand, this is an adrenaline capital of the world and I definitely partook in all the adventures that Queenstown had to offer. I found myself jumping off cliffs into canyons, speed boating, and paragliding off of a mountain. Not the usual itinerary for me but it was a whole lot of fun.
While I was having a blast in Queenstown, I had an extra day to fill because my original plans to visit Milford Sound were canceled due to weather complications. The Fjordland National Park saw over a year’s worth of rain in the course of a couple of days, and all the roads to Milford Sound had been destroyed. So, I decided to backtrack my route a bit and head to Aoraki/Mt. Cook Village.
At Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, I hiked the Hooker Valley Track, which was a busy trail that led right to the base of the glaciers. The mountains were covered in glaciers, and I was lucky enough to visit on a day with blue skies so I got to see the full scenery. The water in nearby Lake Pukaki was probably the brightest turquoise I’ve seen, which I learned is due to the glacial feed coming from the mountains.
This place was so gorgeous that I ended up stopping to read my book for a few hours, listened to a podcast, and just take it all in before mentally preparing myself to head on to Bali the next day.
From Mt. Cook I made my way back to Queenstown and enjoyed one last sunset, with ice cream, of course, and packed my bag that night for Bali.
When I landed in Auckland it had felt like I had an entire lifetime ahead of me of traveling. Two months sounded extremely daunting as I left home, but when I said goodbye to Queenstown it really set in how fast time had gone.
Two weeks in New Zealand flew by, which seemed impossible given all the ground I covered and the long list of things I saw. Next time, I definitely will be traveling in a camper van, and hopefully with a friend, but I keep reminding myself I have the entirety of the North Island yet to see!