New Zealand South Island: A Whistle-Stop Tour

This Christmas, my Mum and Step-Dad came to visit me and my Boyfriend here in Wellington for the holidays. When I was living in Australia two years ago my Mum came out and surprised me but this time, for fear another surprise might cause my heart to actually burst, it was all out in the open. Or so I thought…

Fast forward from them telling us they were coming for the holidays to them arriving at the airport 6 months later and they’d managed to be extra sneaky and bring a few bonus packages along with them: my Sister and my Brother-in-Law. I was right to be worried about my heart bursting with any more surprises; I’m not even sure the scream that came out of my mouth is recognisable by human ears.

Once we’d all (after a LOT of hugging, crying, laughing and more crying) got over the shock, it was time to start planning the time the 6 of us all had together in New Zealand. We decided to stick to the South Island as we didn’t have too much time (about 2 weeks).

Here’s a rundown of our whistle-stop tour:

Day 1-5: Khandallah, Wellington

The original plan was for our visitors to stay with us in our apartment in the city but since they’d  sneakily added two more into the group this wasn’t really possible anymore space-wise. Luckily, my Mum had thought ahead (as Mums are so good at doing!) and booked a beautiful Air Bnb in Khandallah, a lovely suburb about a 15 minute drive from the city. Having not seen them for a year, it was great to have some space away from the city to catch up, it truly felt like a mini-retreat. Obviously, this was perfect for us as we wanted to be able to catch up so it didn’t really matter where we were, but if you’re heading out on holiday you might want to base yourself in the city for more accessible activities. Having said that, Ubers in New Zealand are super cheap and it was easy to get in and out. I think it comes down to whether you want to be in amongst it all or want a bit of R&R.

Khandallah itself has a lovely village-feel and the view of the harbour – especially at night – is truly spectacular. The houses are all nestled into the hill in the most picture perfect postcard-worthy way that even just wandering around the streets is a pleasure… if you can stand the wind! We spent most of our time there either in the Air Bnb cooking, eating and drinking or in the CBD but we did venture into the town centre once which was super cute.

Stunning view of Wellington harbour from Khandallah

We spent our four days in Wellington ticking off all the touristy stuff (which we’d been telling ourselves we’d been saving for their visit but really we’d just been very lazy and hadn’t done yet!) – Te Papa Museum, the Cable Car and walking up to the Mount Victoria Lookout. We also showed them around ‘our’ Wellington: restaurants, bars and cafes. For me, that’s what Wellington’s all about. The tourist attractions are definitely worth it, but it’s just wandering around and having a coffee here, a craft beer there that really gives you a sense of the heartbeat of the city.

The view of Welly from the top of the Cable Car
and from the top of Mount Vic

Here were our picks for the 4 days we had together in Wellington:

  • Husk for a share style lunch surrounded by super-cool decor
  • Olive for brunch (and of course Bloody Marys)
  • Rogue and Vagabond for a beer in the sun
  • Garage Project to learn more about Craft Beer (Wellington is the craft beer capital of the world)
  • Ombra for some afternoon aperitivi
  • Noble Rot for an unbeatable wine experience and possibly the nicest, most well informed servers in the city
  • Ortega Fish Shack for my Birthday (can’t recommend this place more highly for a special occasion)

Day 6: Wellington to Picton

Before my Mum’s arrival we’d kept most things open and didn’t booked much, knowing we wanted to just see how we all felt when they arrived (and, in hindsight, because they knew there’d be two extras on the trip so me booking anything could have been a disaster). However, they had already booked for us to all spend the night of the 30th in Picton and New Year’s Eve in Blenheim. You can catch the Interislander ferry to Picton from Wellington: the journey alone is breathtaking. The boat is super comfy and there’s a bar, cafe and even a cinema so plenty to keep you entertained. The best thing to do, though, is to head out onto the deck and take in the gorgeous Cook Strait as you enter the magical South Island.

Picton is a pretty little port town with lots of lovely cafes and shops, but you probably don’t need more than a night there. We spent the day we arrived sampling the local fare in the form of huge green-lipped mussels and ginormous plates of fish and chips.

Day 7: Picton to Blenheim

There’s plenty to do in Picton in terms of boat trips, walks and bike rides so we decided to take advantage and rent some mountain bikes and explore the town a little more. There are loads of tracks for varying levels of fitness/ability so just ask the bike rental place for a few options. It was an absolute cracker of a day so we didn’t really get too far on the bikes before stopping off at a bar and enjoying a few beers in the sun but hey, that’s what holidays are for, right?

Bike ride done, we jumped in the car and drove a short way to Blenheim. What do you need to know about Blenheim? It’s the centre of the New Zealand wine industry. If that’s not reason enough to go then I don’t know what is. We arrived on New Year’s Eve and checked in to the stunning Chateau Marlborough and headed out for a delicious (if a tad overly theatric) South American dinner at Gramado’s. Dinner done, we headed back to the Hotel to sit by the pool and see in the New Year with champagne and whiskey. Perfection.


Day 8: Blenheim to Nelson

Definitely a highlight of our South Island road trip, on New Year’s Day we rented bikes and cycled around the gorgeous wineries of Blenheim. Each one offers informative tastings and most have restaurants to sop it all up. It was easily one of my best days in New Zealand so far. My vote for best winery has to go to Framingham Wines. I highly recommend.

Feeling ever so slightly pickled by wine and sun, we hopped into the car (don’t worry, we had designated drivers) and drove about an hour and half to Nelson. Nelson has a really nice buzz about it and we spent the evening wandering around town and drinking our haul from the wineries (they didn’t last quite as long as we’d hoped).

Day 9: Nelson to Westport

No visit to Nelson is complete without a trip to the absolutely breathtaking Abel Tasman National Park. There are loads of options for different trips while you’re there but, since we only had one afternoon, we opted to take the boat there and simply chill on the beach and go for a mini-hike and then get the boat back into town. If you’ve got longer you can spend a few days exploring in what I’m sure will be a true Kiwi adventure!

Sunkissed and refreshed after a day at the beach we embarked on the drive to Westport, stopping along the way to take in the scenery.

Day 10: Westport to Franz Josef

The next day was more scenic routes along the coast on the drive from Westport to Franz Josef, in particular the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, so named for their resemblance to a stack of delicious – you guessed it – pancakes. There’s a lovely 20 minute walking loop that takes you along the coast to spot the rocks and the blowholes that accompany them. Be prepared for crowded walkways but a seriously interesting landscape.


Pancakes over, we hopped back into the car and, after a stop in Greymouth for lunch (not too much to report), arrived in Franz Josef for the evening. We had a dreamy little cabin-style apartment so decided to stay in and cook but from the looks of it there’s not a whole load to do in the town itself apart from the world-famous glacier.

Day 11: Franz Josef to Wanaka

Day 11 was all about the glacier. When I was in New Zealand in 2010 we took a guided trip onto the glacier and, decked out in specialist footwear and multiple layers, hiked right on it. However, these days the only way to get onto the glacier itself is on helicopter. Opting not to splash the cash, we decided to simply walk right up to it. The walk itself is quite spectacular, with gloomy backdrops and serene waterfalls galore. Allow about an hour and a half.

If we thought the glacier was a stunner, we were truly flabbergasted by wonderful Wanaka. Oh my. Even the drive there was ridiculous. Wanaka is everything you picture when you imagine the beauty of New Zealand. The lake is so picture perfect it’s hard to believe you’re not looking at a heavily filtered insta-snap and the place is just so clean and fresh. Once in Wanaka we oohd and aahd in yet another beautiful apartment with breathtaking views and headed into the town for an awesome Japanese dinner at Sasanoki. The bento boxes were unreal and they do Sake tastings and have a selection of Japanese whiskies if you’re into that (very up and coming) scene.


Day 12: Wanaka to Queenstown

We spent the morning in Wanaka walking up to the top of Mt Iron for stunning views of Wanaka and then back down for a final trundle around the town before heading off to Queenstown, arguably the most famous tourist destination in New Zealand… and for good reason. If there’s one thing Wanaka’s missing, it’s a bit of hustle and bustle and Queenstown has this in abundance without losing out on any beauty. I’d gone with friends earlier in the year during winter for some awesome skiing so it was cool to see it in Summer with a different vibe. If you’re into adventure – jumping off things, jumping into things and generally throwing yourself about – Queenstown is the one for you. Plus, you do it all amongst the most ridiculously perfect backdrop. It’s truly a dream.


PS – I don’t really even need to add to the masses of blog posts about Fergburger, but it’s worth the hype and worth the line (there will be a line). For sure the biggest foodie recommendation of this post. Get there now. Tip: once you’ve got your burger, leave the crowds behind and go enjoy it picnic-style by the water.

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Overall, you most definitely can explore the South Island on a short time frame, and you most definitely should! 


3 thoughts on “New Zealand South Island: A Whistle-Stop Tour

  1. marvellous blog young’un – wordsmithery obviously runs in the family! Everyone in both hemispheres knew what was about to go down of course and I could hear you yelling from Dorset! so glad you had such a great time – fancy doing it all again next Christmas?
    ATB to both of you


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