How to explore the south island pt. 2

Let the adventures continue from Part 1 of How to Explore New Zealand’s South Island in 5 Days

Our travel route through New Zealand’s South Island (continued) 

Day 3

Queenstown to Milford Sound

Queenstown is a picturesque town with natural beauty at every turn! It is widely considered one of the world’s top resort destinations with year-round recreational activities for adventure sports and ski tourism. Originally known as Tahuna1 , the town sits on an inlet at the edge of Lake Wakatipu with extraordinary views of The Remarkables and other mountain ranges. We stayed at a B&B in a quiet residential neighborhood about 15 minutes from the heart of the town. For the next two days we used Queenstown as our home base and used it as a starting point for our adventures. Staying at the same place gave us a break from packing our belongings to move onto the next lodging space and eliminated the need to familiarizing ourselves with another accommodation. As trivial as it may seem, acquainting ourselves with new rest stops every night can be tiring over an extended period of time!
Autumn is a great time of year to view Queenstown’s marigold trees against the backdrop of a deep blue lake and green forestry. The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound allowed us to witness the stunning fall foliage for the first half of the trip before the onset of rain. In addition to the sudden weather change, the 4.5 hour drive to the Fiordlands left us little opportunity and time to photograph our surroundings due to our cruise reservations on the Milford Sound. Needless to say, Lucas’s driving skills were put to the test in order board the boat on time!

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Once you are here

Milford Road

The Milford Sound is one of the 14 fiords in the Fiordland National Park which is located in the southwest corner of the South Island and is the largest national park in New Zealand. One of the most incredible features of Milford Sound is the journey to get there. On a clear day, Milford Road is a stunning alpine drive with blue skies, however due to the downpour, it was by far the most dramatic landscape that we have ever laid eyes on. Period. The fiord cliffs, some as high as 3,200 feet (1000 meters), funnel the heavy rains downward into thousands, yes thousands, of waterfalls by no stretch of the imagination (the Captain later confirmed our waterfall assumptions). It was a scene straight out of Jurassic Park! It was so spectacular that we would not have been surprised if a pterodactyl landed on the roof of our car. That is how bizarre and majestic the scenery unfolded before us. There were a few times where we wanted to stop and take it all in but pulling over is not advised because due to the cliffs and narrow road. Considering how majestic the fiords were, we weren’t surprised that both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogies were filmed at the Fiordland National Park for its iconic film sequences.

Tip: Travelers should allow plenty of time to drive to the Milford Sound as it is a steep and windy highway. Top up your car in the nearest town, Te Anau, as we did not see another opportunity to fill the tank!

Cruise the Milford Sound

We experienced quite a bit of turbulence over the 1.5 hour ride due to the weather and standing on the boat’s deck was guaranteed to get you soaked down to your underwear. Due to the unrelenting winds and torrential rain, the boat ride through the Milford Sound was an experience that we would consider repeating under better weather conditions. Mother nature was not on our side that day! Our disappointment stemmed from our inability to see the underwater wildlife on a calm and sunny day. Turns out just below the tide line exists a fresh water layer that sits on top of the sea water which filters light to allow deep water dwelling specifies to exist very close to the surface. Although the clarity of the water wasn’t visible, we spotted a pod of dolphins that swam along the boat which was pretty cool! Photographing the dolphins was a bit tricky as we simultaneously clutched our cameras (and stomachs) while the waves mercilessly tossed us about like a toy ship. Regardless of the weather, we made the most of it by swapping stories with fellow travelers and sharing our favorite destination photos on Instagram. We still remain connected which is the reason we travel to begin with: to build relationships. Hopefully in the future we can return to the Milford Sound under better conditions however judging from our waterfall experience, we have no regrets!

Day 4

Queenstown to Haast Pass/Tiori-patea

The scenic drive from Queenstown to Haast Pass/Tiori-patea is a remarkable display of the west coast’s beauty, with 360 degrees of breath-taking views. At 1,850 feet (564 meters) above sea-level, Haast Pass is a mountain route in the Southern Alps linking Wanaka and Haast. On a beautiful sunny day, you’re guaranteed to spot partially hidden waterfalls within the cliffs, streams and undisturbed beauty. Originally, the valuable route was used by Maori to trade pounamu (green stone) and food and was named Tiori-patea meaning ‘the way ahead is clear.’2  On this journey, there are plenty of short walks to explore starting at the edge of the highway between Makarora to Haast. Popular walks include Blue Pools, Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls and Roaring Billy. For those looking for an easy walk and clear paths, Haast offers walks from 5 minutes to an hour, including the return!

Tip: The calculated distance is 2.5 hours however additional travel time should be scheduled since the road may be a bit challenging for less confident drivers due to the twists and turns. Be sure to start with a full tank of gas in the morning and stock up on snacks since there are few gas stations and places to eat.

Once you are here

The Blue Pools is one of the easiest and shortest walks that we’ve experienced in the South Island besides the Moeraki Boulders- that was literally a stone’s throw away from the parking lot. The walk can be experienced in a little under 30 minutes at a leisurely pace, however if time is a factor, it can be explored in under half the time. Although the Blue Pools have been mentioned as a ‘must see’ the highlight is that it is not over-populated with tourists. Instead, the well maintained gravel path and boardwalk is tucked away into the forest and eventually opens up to a clearing with a suspension bridge.

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A bird’s eye view over the suspension bridge will reveal deep crystal clear pools that have been carved out of the rocks as a result of centuries of erosion. The glacier-fed pools are a strikingly hue of blue, clear enough to see the very bottom. As an alternative to jumping into the chilly water, head to the bank of rocks to enjoy lunch or take a few minutes to admire the scenic view on the river’s edge. Whatever you do, be sure to bring bug repellant! On the west coast, the sandflies and mosquitoes are merciless little vampires that may dampen your adventures if you’re not prepared!

If you spend the day in the area, stop at the Gates of Haast gorge where many travelers photograph the rapids as it crashes onto the massive rocks. Looking to explore walking trails with even surfaces and no stairs? In addition to the trails previously mentioned, here are a few trails that are suitable for travelers of all abilities, including wheelchairs, buggies and strollers!

  • Pleasant Flat
  • Haast pass Lookout Track
  • Cameron Lookout Walk
  • Makarora Bush
  • Sawyer Burn Track

If you are pressed for time you may want to skip The Blue Pools if you’re looking for a more adventurous activity or use it as an opportunity to break for lunch to stretch your legs for 30 minutes.

Haast Pass – Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere

The next leg of the journey is 2.5 hours from Haast Pass to the town of Franz Josef which shares the same name as the glacier. Many tourists visit this ‘must-see’ destination to witness a once in a lifetime experience. Home to a small town ski resort, the glacier is located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park and is 7.5 miles long (12 km). With only a 30 – minute drive between them, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers both originate from the Southern Alps and are one of the most accessible glaciers to visit. Easy access allows travelers to experience the glacier on your own leisure or on a guided trip through tour packages. Visitors can bike or take an hour walk on the Te Ara a Waiau Cycleway to discover the dense body of ice.

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Once you are here

Although the glacier is a huge draw for many adventurers, it isn’t the only thing to do once you get here! Explore the quaint town and grab some kai3  to eat along the way. Visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre which is home to the hatching and incubation program for the rarest kiwi birds in the world. If you are looking for an outdoor adventure, rent a kayak or go fishing on Lake Mapourika. For those looking to warm up after a few winter activities, relax in a Glacier Hot Pools where you can soak in a private or public pool surrounded by the natural environment. If you’re still unsure about what to explore don’t worry, plenty of companies offer packages to discover natural attractions.

If you are a long term traveler like us, your best bet is to rest and recharge! Use the downtime to connect with loved ones to provide updates of your latest adventures! We booked an overnight reservation in a cozy cottage to get an early start on day 5 to explore the Franz Josef Glacier.

Day 5

Fox Glacier/Te Moeka o Tuawe

Every once in awhile, travelers have been known to splurge on an adventure that will forever be remembered as the experience worth telling friends and family back home. This was our moment! When we arrived in Franz Josef we knew that we had to go big or go home, so we decided to get an up and personal experience with this natural wonder!
With that said, we decided to…(drum roll please) take a helicopter ride onto the Franz Josef Glacier! Yes, onto the glacier. Before this experience, both Lucas and I had never been in a helicopter so this was a ‘first’ for us. We were so excited that we almost missed our adventure altogether because the fine print in the reservation instructed us to go to the their Fox Glacier pick up location, not their nearby pick up merely two minutes from our Franz Josef cottage! Thankfully the drive to Fox Glacier village was only 30 minutes or else we would have been deeply disappointed.

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Once you are here

It was the perfect day to hop on the heli! Depending on the time of year, flight cancellations are common due to unpredictable weather surrounding the glacier. We were fortunate to experience no wind or rain- just pure sunshine which made the snow-capped mountains appear even whiter against the blue sky.

Once we hopped into the aircraft, you truly don’t notice how tight the space is until you are sitting in the seat next to the pilot! With two tourists in the back and three in the front of the helicopter, I was sandwiched between the pilot and Lucas. Needless to say I didn’t move a muscle on the left side of my body to take photos with my dslr camera since we were sitting so close but it didn’t stop me from recording it with my cell phone!

Tip: Be prepared! The weather may change at any time so it is important to follow up with the helicopter company at least 24 hours before your flight. You will need warm and waterproof clothing, depending on the time of year, sturdy shoes and sunglasses if your eyes are sensitive to the snow. Don’t forget the camera too!

The scenic helicopter ride is one of the most exhilarating and dramatic adventures that we have ever experienced. The 40-minute flight gave us a once in a lifetime bird’s-eye view of ice formations, the Tasman sea, and Aoraki Mount Cook which is New Zealand’s highest peak! The snow landing allowed us to walk directly onto the 8 mile long (13 km) glacier without having to put our non-existent mountain climbing skills to the test!

Even though we confessed to each other about the uneasy parts of the flight that prompted us to prayer for our lives (seriously), we would do it again in a heart beat!

Fox Glacier to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass

Sadly, all good things must come to an end and our tour of New Zealand’s South Island is one of them! The final leg of the trip is from Fox Glacier to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass. This five hour car ride on Highway 73 will take you through the heart of the Southern Alps. The drive on Arthur’s Pass National Park is a stark contrast from the glacier scenery because it offers a lush rainforest landscape against the backdrop of mountains, hills and flowering herbs. If time allows feel free to stop at the information center to learn about the walks within the National Park.

Tip: We highly recommend that travelers eat at a local restaurant and fill your car tank with gas before you leave the Fox Glacier town. There are limited gas stations and places to eat on Arthur’s Pass. Trust us, you’ll thank us later!

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Once you arrive in Christchurch, return your rental car or caravan and fly out of the city’s airport to the next country.

If you plan to further explore Aotearoa4 , fly to Auckland to visit New Zealand’s North Island. More adventures await on the country’s most beautiful beaches, iconic movie set and the Maori cultural hub! 

There is much more to experience in the South Island. Have you been to New Zealand before? If so, what locations would you add to the tour?! Let us know in the comments below!

Keep up with our adventures through FacebookTwitter and Instagram to live vicariously through our travels!


1. Tahuna 


3. Kai is the Maori word for food. 

4. Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand

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5 thoughts on “How to Explore New Zealand’s South Island in 5 Days [Part 2]”

  1. Dear Barbers,
    Good for you and your spirit for adventure and knowing the importance of travel. I grew up about 45 minutes due east of ROC in the tiny town of Savannah, NY (Newark, Lyons, Clyde, Savannah in that order going East). My job as a journalist has taken me to many places and NZ was the most beautiful as I got to cover the Discovery Adventure Race there in 2000 where teams race 24 hours a day. Like you, I was able to get in a helicopter over and around Mt. Cook to the glacier, followed kayakers on beautiful glacier fed lakes and down class five Rapids, sleep with them in various campsites as they came off young, skree mountain ranges in the dark and watched as they crossed the finish line on the azure colored Lake Tekapo. It was the assignment of a lifetime. We were there for about three weeks and I want to go back every year as I never got the chance to see the North Island. I so admire your mission and outlook on life. We only live once and you are doing a superb job of showing the world your growing world. Safe travels and I look forward to your next adventure.

    1. Hello Dawn,

      I grew up in Sodus, NY and played against Clyde-Savannah in sports! I also went to school with some Fratangelo’s (Dianna and Monica). Are you related? I’m glad you enjoyed your time in NZ as it is a special place to us. Too bad it’s such a long trip for people on the east coast.

  2. We too did the helicopter ride up to Fox Glacier! What an experience! So worth the splurge!

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