At the end of last summer, I found myself on two separate, epic road trips around New Zealand’s South Island. At let me just preface this by saying there is nothing more amazing than road tripping around New Zealand by car.
My first trip took me through the Southern Alps and to some of my favorite mountains and familiar turf. This trip was based more along the north coast and top of the South Island, an area I didn’t know as well but was keen to know better. And end of summer was the perfect timing!
I’ve had these photos sitting on my hard drive for months and it was time to have them see the light of day again. And I might be dreaming of the beautiful New Zealand summer, which can’t come soon enough for me!
I decided to put down everything that we did on this trip condensed into one giant post to give you an idea for a road trip itinerary around the South Island and some unmissable spots (map here). Enjoy!
I caught a quick flight from Queenstown to Christchurch to start the trip before meeting the group at the Commodore Hotel. I didn’t have much time to explore the city, which is a shame because I really like Christchurch, it has such a fun vibe!
Before dinner we picked up our Britz Campervan, our wheels for the next 5 days, and each got accustomed to driving such a big car. Considering I normally drive a tiny toy Volkswagon, it took some getting used to with such a big van.
We drove around some of the beaches and little suburbs around sunset before grabbing an early dinner. On these sorts of trips there is always an early start!
We were up bright and early the next morning to head out to Darfield, inland from Christchurch to go hot air ballooning. I’ve been hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey and in Luxor, Egypt, but never in my new home of New Zealand so I was so so excited to have the chance to take in my favorite landscapes from the skies.
After helping set up everything with Ballooning Canterbury a nice locally owned and run business, we were off just as the sun began to peak over the horizon, perfect timing. I love being able to see the different patterns and views from above. Riding in hot air balloons are so mellow too, since you move along with the wind, you aren’t jostled or bumped in the same way as with a plane.
Great way to start the trip! As we touched down in a field a huge group of tiny school kids came over in their bright yellow neon vests and uniforms on their way to school. It was all kinds of adorable!
After we touched down we piled in the big camper and set off for Kaikoura, about a 3 hour drive away. Did I mention I was ridiculously excited? Kaikoura is one of my absolute favorite places in New Zealand. It is just stunning. Tucked away on the coast north of Christchurch the little town sits at the foothills of two massive snowcapped mountain ranges, combining two of my favorite things in one: mountains and the seaside.
There is seriously so much to do and see in Kaikoura, I definitely recommend staying for two days at least!
We got there in time to hop on an afternoon whale watching tour, something I hadn’t done before in New Zealand, though I was mildly apprehensive. When I first moved to New Zealand I did a dolphin swim in Kaikoura and it was so choppy I spent most of the trip with my face in a bucket (couldn’t eat skittles for months afterwards guys). Luckily the weather was on our side and it was calm seas, smooth sailing and several sperm whales.
After a crayfish (lobster) dinner and a beautiful misty sunset walk around the beaches, one of my favorite things to do in Kaikoura, I was dead tired and crashed right away at my fancy room at the White Morph on the beach front.
We were up bright and early to head out on a small boat tour to see the albatrosses with Albatross Encounter. While I am not a morning person, I absolutely love being on the sea which makes up for it, especially at sunrise when all of the fishing boats are out and about.
I remembered when we stopped and a few birds were floating around the back of the boat, and I turned to the captain and said, which one is the albatross? Before he could answer the biggest bird I have ever seen in my entire life swopped in and snapped at the other birds and landed. It was enormous. I guess that was the albatross! It was like a mini boat!
It was so amazing to see these birds fly and swim around the boat; it was mesmerizing! After the sun came up we cruised bak to land with the company of a pod of dolphins. What a place!
4. Marlborough Sounds
A nice two hours drive north along the beautiful coastline and past a ton of seal colonies (squeeee) will bring you to Picton and the top of the South Island and the gateway to the Marlborough Sounds, an area of New Zealand I hadn’t really explored before.
The sun was shining and it was hot and beautiful when we met up with Wilderness Guides for a kayak across the sounds.
While the wind picked up and it was pretty bumpy on the way across the Sounds, as soon as we hit the other side and some shelter it was as still as glass, with water so clear and turquoise you could see straight to the bottom.
That night we stayed at Raetihi Lodge, a beautiful retreat on the Sounds right next to the water. Alone in the wild with nothing around you but nature, it was just how I imagined this area of New Zealand to be.
The next morning was misty and a bit wild and it really felt like I woke up at the end of the world. It is so peaceful out in the Sounds, and I love that you get around by boat. What a place.
I was so surprised by how much I loved the Sounds; I can’t wait to go back in the spring or summer with friends and walk the Queen Charlotte Track or mountain bike some of the trails. And it will definitely be a place I take my family if they come visit, I know my parents would love it.
On our way back to land, we stopped at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum in Blenheim, Peter Jackson’s collection of WWI aircraft. I LOVE this kind of stuff (read more here), and was so excited to see this collection.
After I got my history nerd on and fully annoyed everyone else, we headed to the Marlborough Vintners Hotel, our base for exploring wine country around Blenheim. If there are any wine fans out there, you probably know Marlborough is famous for its wine.
Show me the Sauv!!!
After chucking our stuff in our rooms we picked up our bikes from Wine Tours By Bike and headed off to explore some of the vineyards around Blenheim’s Golden Mile. Many of them are close together and easy to get to by bike. Perfect for wine tasting days.
Our first stop was Wairau River Wines for lunch before heading off to some of the other wineries in which I filled all of my saddlebags with as much wine as I could carry.
I almost regretted this when I checked in for my flight home and I had six bottles but luckily when you fly domestic in New Zealand, you can take it all on board! Winning!
After an amazing afternoon biking from vineyard to vineyard in which I vaguely remember everything, I had an early night’s sleep.
The next day we headed off to Yealands, which before we even arrived at the cellar door, was clearly going to be my new favorite New Zealand winery.
Rows and rows of perfect vines for as far as we could see rolling out over the hills greeted us as we drove up. Holy shit!
Built on an area that was supposed to be terrible for grape growing, they proved everyone wrong winning awards year after year. Seriously this place was amazing. They even play classical music to the vines and have mini sheep that naturally mow the lawn between the vines. Where am I?
6. Hanmer Springs
After two solid days of nothing but drinking wine, rough life I know, we headed down to Hanmer Springs. I passed through here a year ago for a day, so I was so stoked to head back for the night. It’s a famously “kiwi” holiday town, and I love soaking up the thermal hot pools.
I’d driven the mountain roads between Kaikoura and Hanmer Springs before and I was so excited to see it again in summer. It’s a really beautiful drive!
We also got to stay in the Heritage which is an old world style hotel. It felt like I was back in Europe and one of those old school hotels around the thermal baths, something I absolutely love. After an evening at the spas, we woke up to an adventure morning headed out to explore the area on quad bikes.
7. Waipara Valley
The Waipara is a small area in Canterbury near Hanmer Springs and Kaikoura and is another amazing wine growing region of New Zealand. It was our last stop on the way to the airport and it’s one of the hottest areas of New Zealand.
Our last lunch was a delicious one at Black Estate on our way home. We say in the sun drinking Pinot Noir and chowing down on a gourmet meal reminiscing about our time on the road all over New Zealand.
I felt like I needed a week to absorb everything, and definitely needed several months to work off all the weight I gained. I was definitely about 50% Riesling by the end of the trip.
Have you been to this part of New Zealand? Are you a wine traveler? Are you a fan of road trips too?