It’s been exactly a week since I stepped off the ferry back in Wellington after 14 days exploring the South Island over the holidays, and my mind is still reeling.
The verdict is in – New Zealand’s South Island is ACTUALLY the most beautiful place in the entire world.
Nope, don’t even try to argue.
Major sensory overload; I think it’s safe to say I have a visual hangover from too much pretty, and it’s taken me a week to even begin to process all of the stunning locations I was lucky enough to experience with Haka Tours.
Coming from a nomad who is addicted to mountainous landscapes, blue waters and adventure sports, that’s saying something.
3 weeks ago when I made my way to the YHA hostel in downtown Wellington to meet up with the tour group for the first time, I had butterflies in my stomach and my hands were sweaty.
I was nervous. I had been traveling alone for so long I’d forgotten what it was like to share travel experiences in a group and not be in charge of planning.
What if they didn’t like me? What if I hated everyone and was miserable on Christmas? What if the guide was boring and I didn’t pack enough underwear?
Deep breath, Liz, calm the hell down and be more positive – I tried to give myself a mental pep talk. I know I’ve been too much of a hermit since getting to New Zealand. This trip would be good for me in so many ways.
Turns out I had nothing to fear; not only did I in fact pack enough undies, but everyone was more than friendly and outgoing, and Burto, our guide, is my new favorite Kiwi.
After a quick run together for snacks for the ferry to the South Island, and the sharing of Skittles (nothing brings people together like sharing sugar), we were off! Though little did I know how much I would regret those Skittles the next day….
One of the things I loved the most about Haka Tours was that almost everyone is a solo traveler, just like me. Inhibitions are stripped away and bonds are quickly formed as you meet your new travel companions for the first time.
Nothing brings people together quite like traveling across the world to a new country with the possibility of a great adventure, am I right?
The next day, the real journey would begin.
Finally getting to step foot on the South Island after a decade of dreams for me is almost indescribable. It takes a lot for me to be at a loss for words, but there were plenty of spots in the South Island that left me speechless and stuttering.
Our first stop was Kaikoura, and I place I was really looking forward to since I hadn’t heard much about it. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the water is as deep as the peaks are tall, making it a hot spot for sea creatures.
Swimming with wild dolphins was on the agenda for the day!
The drive along the coast was the perfect introduction. Jagged mountains dropped down to turquoise water, creating the perfect moody ambience I was hoping for.
In spite of windy seas and all the morning boat tours being cancelled, after being warned of high waves and rough swells, our group was going to be the first to venture out that day.
Oh why didn’t I listen to the warnings?
Armed with dramamine, ginger pills and thick wetsuits, we piled into a tiny boat before launched in the water with my new comrades. After searching for the dolphins for 45 minutes on the roughest water I’ve experienced to date, we finally found a huge group of them.
Slipping off the back of the boat we snorkeled around on the surface while hundreds of playful dolphins swam around us. Now that my friends is not something I’ll soon forget.
Not to mention they respond to sound and noise, so just wait for the video of me screaming the lyrics to “Under the Sea” through my snorkel. You’re welcome in advance.
However, after 2 dives and accidentally getting a mouthful of seawater, seasickness finally kicked in and I flopped back in the boat unable to recover.
With my wetsuit half pulled off and my face in a bucket, I spent the rest of the trip wanting to die and really, really regretting binging on Skittles.
Not exactly how I envisioned my introduction to the rest of the tour. “Hi, I’m Liz….yak.”
Luckily, no one held it against me, and as I watched dozens of dolphins do flips out of the water next to the boat, I thought to myself, well, this might take the cake for the most beautiful place I’ve ever barfed.
Back on land (THANK GOD ALMIGHTY) we made our way down to Christchurch to an area of New Zealand often overlooked by tourists since the devastating earthquake a few years ago. Lucky for me, we checked into the Haka Lodge Christchurch, which was homey, comfy and cozy, AND with kittens included. Just what I needed to recover.
After losing my Skittles, I had plenty of space for the amazing homecooked pasta dinner we shared together, lounging around the common area. From someone who more often than not eats both out and alone on the road, it was really nice to have what felt like a family dinner that first night together.
Christchurch might actually be one of the biggest surprises of the whole trip. After hearing from everyone and their mother about how much the city has fallen, is in ruin, and is a zombie-apocalypse town, my 2 cents are agree to disagree.
For me, Christchurch has nothing but potential, and I was really impressed by the efforts of locals to help both rebuild their town and show us outsiders just how great it can really be.
I can’t wait to go back and see more of it.
Oh, and did I mention Christchurch is home to New Zealand’s biggest cookie factory and shop?!
From Christchurch we traveled through the center of the South Island, where I got my first glimpse of the Southern Alps, yippee! Though it did take a few days for me to finally catch a peek of Aoraki-Mount Cook, NZ’s highest peek, who was playing hard-to-get and hiding behind the clouds.
This was also the beginning of the trip where I started to annoy everyone by saying, “Oh wow, this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. No wait, THIS is the most beautiful place. No wait, THIS.”
You get the idea.
Crystalline blue lakes are interspersed along Alpine mountains creating a land that looks like it was painted and not reality. Getting to sleep next to Lake Tekapo and frolic among fields of rainbow lupins was pretty much a fairytale come true.
It’s also around this point where I began to take an absurd amount of photos. Click, click, clickity click, that was me.
Right before the trip, I got hooked up with an olloclip 4 – in – 1 lens for my iPhone. With a fisheye, 2 macros and a wide angle that all conveniently clip together on my phone, I was really able to take some wicked shots of the South Island without having to yank out my heavy camera.
Being the nerd that I am, I’m always whining about how I can fit the shot I want to in the damn Instagram square. Now, problem solved!
Eventually we made our way to Queenstown in time for Christmas Eve, and after a very small world moment, I ended up meeting and drinking beer on the beach with one of my readers as the sun set! What a great way to spend Christmas Eve!
In a rare fit of spontaneity, I decided to go out on the town with everyone and properly enjoy the infamous party scene in town.
I’ve alluded to this before, but somehow New Zealand has had this amazing idea to create booze teapots in bars, that is, instead of ordering a regular old boring drink, you can get a much bigger one served up in a teapot instead.
Though, it goes without saying, I usually regret teapot nights in New Zealand.
Well Christmas Even involved a lot of teapots, singing carols loudly and dancing around the bars, and then a midnight dip in the lake.
Though it made for a rather rough Christmas morning, it was one of those beautiful travel experiences with new friends.
Massively hungover, I joined in on most of the tour on a day trip to Milford Sound, one of the most beautiful spots in New Zealand.
After celebrating a massive Christmas feast together plus secret Santa and opening presents, we got to spend more time enjoying the beauty of this area of New Zealand.
Before leaving Queenstown, I had to take part in paragliding, the activity YOU picked for me to do on this trip! And holy shit, what a backdrop to try it out in!
I’ve never been paragliding before, and after this, it’s safe to say I’m hooked! In fact, I’m already looking into getting licensed on my own I loved it so much!
And if things couldn’t get any better, which I should have known by now not to say because things always got better, we journeyed over to Wanaka, which is a town I am thinking seriously about moving to once my lease in Wellington ends.
From walking along the lake to getting to fly in a vintage WWII fighter plane, my short time there was pretty unforgettable!
In spite of being a tiny town, Wanaka packs a punch and I really can’t wait to move there. Maybe. Should I?
Once we got to the wild west coast, things started to get even more interesting.
Under beautiful clear skies, I got to strap on crampons and fulfill my Game of Thrones fantasy by spending a few hours hiking on the blue ice of the Franz Josef Glacier. Oh, and for the record, I didn’t faceplant, not once. Winning.
You know nothing, Jon Snow.
From mountains to fiords to glaciers to rainforests to sandy beaches, by the end of the trip we found ourselves in the Abel Tasman National Park, hiking along a coastline that reminded me of Greece and sleeping under the Milky Way on a boat hostel.
I was afraid after all of the excitement and adrenaline of previous days, the end of the trip wouldn’t live up to scratch.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The glorious, raw beauty of the north coast combined with peaceful few days was just what I needed to wind down and say goodbye to the South Island.
Ringing in New Years on the water with dozens of new and (somewhat) old friends around a campfire might be one of my favorite end of the year celebrations to date!
Two weeks in the South Island with Haka Tours was just what I needed without even knowing it. I was able to experience the incredible beauty of New Zealand for the first time with friends.
And like most of the people who I was with, I left with the feeling of wanting more and already thinking about coming back. New Zealand has a way of doing that with people.
Have you been to New Zealand’s South Island? Is it on your bucket list? Are you a fan of taking phone photos while traveling?
Many thanks to Haka Tours for hosting me in the South Island. Like always, I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own – like you could expect anything else from me!