South Island New Zealand Trip Guide

A view of Mt Cook at dusk.

Our Trip Review to the South Island of New Zealand

We recently took a trip to New Zealand with our closest friend group – 12 days + 3 couples exploring the South Island. We started talking about taking this trip when one of our friends asked if we wanted to join them and photograph their vow renewal. We did not know much about New Zealand so this trip was a nice surprise in some ways. We learned a lot from our first trip and honestly can not wait to go back one day! I am writing this blog for a few reasons – to remember the trip we took in detail, to be able to share our trip with others, but also to chat about tips, what I would do different or next for a visit. 

Our friends we traveled with are also photographers. It was super fun to trade sessions and have quality photos taken together in some of these incredible places. All landscapes and photos of other couples in this blog are taken by us, but some photos of us were taken by Aimee Flynn Photo and Shell Creek Photo.

Table of Contents

Flying to New Zealand from the United States

We were flying from Seattle, so we flew Sea-Tac to LAX where we would join our friends to fly in on the same plane. From LAX we flew to Auckland. We flew on Delta – mostly because it is and will always be my preferred airline 🙂 To get to the first airport for us was 3 hours and the first flight was 2.5 hours. The second flight would be 13 hours. This would be the longest flight I have done in my life. Luckily we flew out of LAX at 10pm. After dinner and a cocktail, sleep was easy. Other than 1.5 movies we slept the entire time. Once we landed in Auckland we had to walk over to the domestic terminal of the airport to switch to our Jestar flight to Christchurch. This is where our travel took an unexpected turn, which of all turns was fine in the end. For Jetstar we had re-arrange our bags so that our carry on was only 7kg. This is quite difficult when carrying cameras and laptops in your carry on. We decided for our flight home we would purchase another bag to check so the process would be easier. The Auckland domestic airport is also quite small, so they will only allow you to get your ticket and check in 2 hours before – even if you are in between flights. 

Flying back to the states was much more difficult for us than flying in. The process of flying from Queenstown to Auckland was easy. We had a 1.5 hour layover, which ended up being fine, but we were running through the airport and were 5 minutes past boarding start time when we finally made it to our gate. I would recommend no less than a 2 hour layover there as the lines were all backed up and the walk from domestic to international takes about 10 minutes. What the worst part was the flight from Auckland to LAX on top of a 4 hour layover for SEA-TAC. 

Traveling to New Zealand is long, my recommendation is to fly at night so it is easier to get some sleep so you aren’t traveling with too much fatigue. 

A view of the colorful building in downtown Christchurch.


Though we flew into Auckland first, our trip started in Christchurch. We got our rental car and checked into our first quaint little airbnb before starting out for dinner. We met our friends and ate at Gin Gin, a lovely little restaurant on historical Regent street. It was fun people watching here, but mostly we were impressed with the food and cocktails. We dined, outside, but the vibe inside was awesome. 

The next day we started with breakfast and coffee downtown at C1 Espresso. I was so impressed with this place – the history, the quirks, the food, juice and coffee was amazing! We quickly realized coffee + breakfast (pastries) were going to amazing here. 

Before starting out on our next adventure we drove around near the Gondola Summit Station to enjoy the views and take in the green country side and bright blue waters. 

Mt Cook National Park

This section of New Zealand was probably the one I was most stoked on, for obvious reasons, mountains. After a 4 hour drive, plus a stop to see the Lupines (of course!) at Lake Tekapo, we arrived at our Airbnb by the Lake Ohau nestled around 360 mountains. It was so quite and private. We ate in all three nights here since it is so remote. It was fun because each of us couples cooked one night for everyone. Our first night was really just resting, eating and making a game plan for the remainder of the time. We finished the evening with some local New Zealand red wine and a game of Scattergories. 

Day 1 - Hooker Valley Track

With a new big day ahead we woke up had our tea, coffee and breakfast and set up for some adventure! Our drive in was cloudy so we had not yet seen Mt Cook in all of her beauty. Our drive into the National Park and towards the mountain, our jaws were on the floor. This peak is STUNNING and massive. Lupines lined the massive incredibly blue green lake along the road with peaks all surrounding us. In the far distance we could see orographic clouds rolling down the mountain sides. The view was incredible. 

We got to the parking lot by 10:30am, just in time to snag the last parking spots. It was busy! We set out for our hike, quickly realizing, yes we should have bought sunscreen. The trek was very easy – we enjoyed the bridges and changing views of Mt Cook and the mountains surrounding us. When we arrived to the end of the trail we sat down and enjoyed a snack watching the glaciers flip and turn in the water. We hiked back taking our time and eyeing out if we could spot the hike we planned to do the next day, pretty proud to say we did! 

After this hike we drove over the next trail we wanted to do that was a short 1.2 miler just one mountain ridge over from where we are that would lead to another glacier lake from Mt Cook. However, we were exhausted! From the travel, the heat and overall simply just ending our 2023 elopement season. We decided to save our energy and go grab food or head back to the Airbnb. 

However, lol, we ended up stopping along the lupines at several view points along Lake Pukaki. The Lupines for me were a massive selling point for coming to New Zealand. If you don’t know I have a tattoo of one on my forearm I love them so much. I was so excited to seem them in these bold colors amongst this incredible view and to smell massive fields of them. Since we had found two incredible viewpoints of them, we all had a change of plans and decided to do a trade session at sunset with our friends among the lupines. We drove back to the Airbnb for dinner, got ready and set back out to the lake. We had the must stunning sunset and blue hour together having such a time in the lupine fields! 

Once we returned back to the airbnb the rest of friends re-joined us. We shared another night together enjoying local wine, chocolates and a game of Scattergories. 

***I would like to make a special Leave No Trace Note. We often preach here in WA to not trek in the wildflowers for it is very damaging to the flowers and meadows. However, here in New Zealand, Lupines are invasive and have a rampant foot hold over roadsides and small waterways, choking out local plants and taking all the available water allowing the native species no room to compete. it is okay to walk in them. 

Day 2 - Mueller Hut

Before the trip we really did not know much about New Zealand. We relied on our friend for information that had already been, Instagram posts and Tiktoks, All Trails and general searches. The first thing when planning our daily spreadsheets (lol) I pulled were the top hikes I wanted to do. This one was on it. 

We started early getting ready, tea and breakfast. Then we stopped at the local store in town to pick up trail snacks. We arrived too late this time for a parking spot, but luckily there was some side of the road parking. We set out for some intense elevation! The first bit through the bush was flat and easy – smooth sailing. Then came the stairs lol….I mean thousands of stairs up 1500ft+ of elevation. The stairs were not too bad to conquer and we flew up them stopping here and there just to let people pass down or for the construction workers repairing stairs. After we reached the tarn glacier viewpoint everything changed – to super steep unmaintained choss sauce. For the next mile and a half it was another 1500+ feet and terrain that is hard on the body, good thing the view was good on the eyes lol. It took us much longer to get up this section of the trail. At the top out the wind LITERALLY knocked me over, but I was able to grab some rock to brace myself. We turned the corner and a guy said hey beware of the wind, don’t go that way lol….seriously noted. We kept going towards the hut, but stopped to admire the glaciers, clouds and waterfalls on the massive mountain (Mount Sefton) in front of us. We crossed a snow field and arrived at the hut. We stepped inside to admire the space, read about the local apline parrots who visit the hut (Kea’s) and enjoy lunch. Since the clouds were coming in strong, we decided to get back down the mountain before the rain came in. 

Down was brutal. We were sore for sure from the trek up and the steepness paired with the massive steps and the rock was not the easiest to navigate. We took our time and enjoyed having this incredible outdoor space basically to ourselves. We made it back to our car starving and tired – but blissfully fulfilled. We arrived back at the airbnb to enjoy a yummy steak dinner our friend had made and listened to everyone else’s stories from their day. Then it was time to bed – an early night for an exciting next day. 


We started the day super early at lake Ohau, pre sunrise for a very special moment. Our friend was going to propose. We all got up and dressed as if we were going to trade sessions together overlooking the lake near our Airbnb. However, sadly I somewhat gave it away by not fixing my hair that morning because I did not feel well. Either way, the moment was so beautiful and special. We were so happy to capture our friends proposal. The morning started out a little cloudy, but right after Kaleb said yes the sun peaked out and we even got our only rainbow on the whole trip. After taking many portraits of the newly engaged couple we went back to the Airbnb to, of course, look at our photos, but also make breakfast and pack up the Airbnb. 

We headed out grabbing coffee along the way, stopping to see the Clay Cliffs and of course snapping some photos of the road side sheep. Sadly, I feel asleep the rest of this drive, but I hear the road is wild, windy and beautiful! Our friends stopped to explore Wanaka, which we had planned on hiking in later, but plans changed and we’re still wishing we had gone!

We arrived to Queenstown and were a little overwhelmed as we are not city people, hadn’t known what to expect because honestly we did not look up this area before coming and had been in the mountains for a few days. We checked into our airbnb, and were blown away! It was by far the most beautiful Airbnb we had ever stayed in. The Airbnb was quirky, had incredible 360 views of the mountains and lakes, a beautiful kitchen, hot tub and lovely bathrooms. The stoke was high for the next few days. 

The rest of the evening was a little romantic get away for us. We started with Dinner at The Bunker downtown. I could not get over how good the appetizers alone were, much less the meals. We felt like we were in this cute, dark nook from back in the day dining by the fire place. After dinner, we met everyone up at The Little Blackwood, a well known craft cocktail bar. We all enjoyed a round and shared about all of our romantic, fancy dinners. We all couldn’t eat at all of them so this was a fun way to kinda experience them all. Aft our drink we sent out to end the evening at Onsen Tubs. I do not remember how I stumble across this place, but I am so glad I did. We booked the 1 hour package for blue hour that came with champagne and dark chocolate ice cream – worth the hype. This was so out of our normal of things we do together. It was incredible from the view, the tub and just time to simply be still together and enjoy. I would highly recommend this, it was easily one of our favorite things we did on the trip. 

Day 1 - Queenstown

Wow! The trip so far had been so full and wonderful. We decided for this day we wanted to slow down a bit and just enjoy the town. We started off at coffee and breakfast at Fergbaker which became a staple of the Queenstown morning routine – yes it was that good. I enjoyed the chai lattes, prosciutto sandwich and lemon meringue pie. This was my favorite way to start off any day we had in New Zealand. From here we wandered the streets and shops of the town with our friends enjoying the different outdoor shops and Christmas shopping. Malachi and I got the great idea to poke our heads into the tattoo shops. We decided to get tattoos together – for me to touch up my lupine and add another lupine to it and for him a Kea in the form of traditional Maori. We stopped for a light lunch and went back into the shop to make it happen. My artist, Marcelo, did an amazing job on my tattoo and Bill enjoyed speaking Spanish and learning Portuguese with him. 

Since by the time we got done most of the day was gone we decided to make a dinner plan. We met back up with the rest of our friends for dinner at The Cow since it came recommended to us. We enjoyed the old stone house vibe with cathedral windows and the most amazing garlic bread. However, we all agreed the meal was just okay. From there we all set out for the hot tub at the house to enjoy sunset and blue hour. Don’t worry, we kept the tattoos dry. 

Day 2 - Glenorchy

Another pre-sunrise early start for this day!!! Since we missed the big hike we wanted to do in Wanaka I found a short local’s spot near by trail that was screaming my name. It was only 1.2 miles and only 15 minutes from the house. We set out driving into the mountains saying good morning to the cows and sheep on the road. The trail was no joke. Another whopping 1300 ft of gain in less than a mile. We arrived at the top just in time for sunrise overlooking the lake with another 360 mountain views. We took portraits of our one friend that joined and Bill and I dressed up for some photos together. It felt like we were in a movie similar to The Sound of Music, it didn’t feel real, just beautiful. We hiked down and in many spots butt scooted back down enjoying the birds and ducks near the water. This easily became my second favorite hike on the trip, so much so, I would do it again. 

Once we returned and the rest of the group was awake we set back out for breakfast and coffee. We took a drive along the lake that is within Queenstown just to get out and enjoy the sun and views some. We returned back to our Airbnb to help our friends get ready as were going to photograph their 10 year vow renewal in Glenorchy. They spent the day before scouting out all the locations they wanted to go for the day. This area meant a lot to them from their first trip to New Zealand. After everyone was ready to go we set out for the drive enjoying the incredible mountain views along the way. 

We arrive to the Dart River where they would share their first look among the lupines in the sunshine with you guessed it, another 360 mountain view – it is really a theme. After the first look we drove down a long dirt road even passing a herd of back lit horses running kicking up dust behind them in the direction we were headed. It was one of those by chance, wild movie like moments. We had entered another new National Park in New Zealand – Mount Aspiring. We arrived to the parking area, another….oh I won’t say it, that was simply incredible. No one else around. We gleefully made our way to the river as the sun was perfection. Once we crossed the streams to the perfect spot Aimee + Rob shared their vows with each other – new promises and honoring the past 10 years married together. They danced to their original first dance song and then a new song, Taylor Swift of course. It was a beautiful celebration of our friends love, being back in this place and all of us being together for all of these highs together. 

Day 3 - Deer Park Heights

Sadly, it was the day we checked out of our incredible Airbnb. We all slept in from the late night we had and enjoyed every last minute we had there. This was the day we would drive to the Milford Sound area. However, we wanted to enjoy Queenstown a little more. We started with grabbing a coffee and walking around. Then we enjoyed lunch together at White + Wong’s which was super yummy where we ate buns and baos. During lunch we found a farm that wasn’t as far as the one in Glenorchy to visit. We headed to Deer Park Heights, which was also on the way to Te Anau where we would be staying that night. We were very excited to see the Tahr and Highland Cows. However, the goats may have stole the show lol. We got to basically see one goat be born and watch a little bit of goat culture, we had goats jumping on our car, we watched goats….ya know. The goats were goating. lol. One cool thing about the farm is that parts of the Lord of the Rings triology were filmed there and you can visit the filming sites to take photos. The views from the farm were incredible! It was a very cool experience and I am so glad we did it opposed to our hard hike after it had rained that am. 

Then we set out for our 2 hour drive to Te Anau. Hiking wise here everything is a bit of a drive or pretty long and or steep. So we decided to just grab snacks for the next days long adventure and dine at The Fat Duck. This small towns food was pretty dang good, which to our surprise was the theme almost everywhere we ate. Incredible food was hard to miss. This night I had the steak with mushrooms and pumpkin puree and it was AMAZING. One of the top 3 meals on the trip. 

We headed back to the airbnb for a good nights rest before the road trip and adventures ahead the next day. 

Milford Sound

We woke up and grabbed coffee in town then started our drive to Milford Sound. The drive was said to be 1 hour and 40 minutes, but with the tunnel construction, curvy roads and sights to see along the way, we gave ourselves 3 hours to do it and it was perfect. We stopped many times at view points and lupine fields. We stopped to look for Keas, which are the alpine parrots that are only found on the South Island of New Zealand mentioned in the Mueller Hut section. With a population of only five thousand, it is very exciting to seem them. First the forest in the area is so stunning, then you have this incredible bird with beautiful sounds. Luckily, they are smart and curious birds so they stopped at our car both times we stopped to cross through the tunnel. 

Everyone talks about how beautiful Milford Sounds is, and it truly is, but we were blown away at how beautiful the entire drive was. Every curve brought us a new mountain view graced with cloud inversions. SO MANY WATERFALLS. This place is truly a gem within New Zealand – which says a lot because the entire place is stunning. We arrived to the parking area with enough time for a coffee and light snack before getting onto the boat for our tour of the sound. We were provided lunch as the boat left the dock, then it was to the top deck – wind and all – you have 4 professional photographers on this trip lol…..We enjoyed the views, trying to stand in the wind. Watching for waterfalls and keas and soaking in the sun. We even saw one mountain shaped almost identical to the ever famous El Cap in Yosemite National Park (see photo below, you will know!). 

From here we headed over to our friend staying closer to the Sound’s stay to get ready as we were all trading sessions again around sunset back at the sound. We headed out as the sun got lower in the sky, a little later in the day. We were surprised to see the parking lot had emptied and we essentially had the entire place to ourselves once again. We took some photos with Mitre peak behind us – having fun and dancing around with our bare feet in the sand. The view was so incredible, we truly did not want to leave when the time came, but with the 8pm tunnel closure we definitely had to go, lol. It was fun though to drive back in the day time to see the views from the opposite direction, in sunset light and drive those winding roads not in the dark.

Since we arrived back so late and tired, we made to go pizzas at our Airbnbs and of course looked through all the incredible photos from the day. 

A photo of a mountain in Milford sound that resembles the shape of El Cap.

Te Anau back to Queenstown

With another rainy morning the hikes we wanted to go on were off the table, so we enjoyed a slow morning at the Airbnb packing up and grabbing breakfast. We set our for a glow worm tour off of the lake in Te Anau. To get to the cave the worms are in you get to do another boat tour! It was fun seeing the islands and mountain views. Truly I was blown away at how big all the lakes were we saw and they all had the most beautiful blue waters. When we arrived it felt like we were all of in a juggle safari movie. It had rained the night before and morning of so I was glad to have our rain jackets and pants for the tour. No phones or cameras were allowed, sadly. We got to walk in the first bit of the cave, dodging the low hanging rocks. There was so much water in the cave an we got to see some beautiful waterfalls coming down the caves rocky paths. We reached the point where our tour go into a small boat where the guide would pull us through on a pully systems. At this point it was lights out. I honestly got a little panicky as it was super dark, tight, wet and the glow worms were hanging over head lol. The glow worms glow a beautiful blue color and it looks like a night sky – which is also the way they lure their food. While it was a little difficult for me to relax, the experience was very neat and I enjoyed learning about the worms, which are actual just fly larva. 🙂 

After the tour, we popped in for a quick lunch at a nearby spot before heading over to the local bird sanctuary which has many rare birds you can go see for free. We mainly went to the bird sanctuary to see the Takahē which has been described as a blue chicken. They are even more rare and endangered than the Kea. After seeing the birds it was time for our drive back to Queenstown. By this point for me it was setting in how sad I was this trip was coming to an end….

Since this day was also Malachi’s birthday we joined them for dinner at Pedro’s by the Lake which was a yummy tapas place. It was great to dine outside with the view and to people watch. We enjoyed music by the nearby guitar player who’s dog sang the songs for him. After dinner we went to Perky’s which was super fun to have a drink on the deck of a boat on the lake as the sunset below the mountains around us. From Perky’s we went back to what had become all of ours favorite bar in town, Little Mez, which to no one’s surprise if you know me, is a Mezcal bar. We decided to keep bar hopping as we were enjoying the different scenes in town and stopped at 5 Below the ice bar and Cowboy’s. 

It was a fun night taking in the different little nooks on the town and just cutting loose together. 

***The photo of the Glow worm cave is from the Real NZ website for the tour as we were not allowed to take photos.

Last Day in Queenstown

For our last day in Queenstown we decided to fully live it up. We wanted to soak in every single minute we had. We started with you guessed it – coffee and breakfast. Then we headed away from Queenstown for a bike and wine tour we had signed. up for at Gibbston Valley. We picked up our electric assist bikes and started out with a small route to a view point before our wine tour into the wine cave and tasting. It was so fun to learn about the process of wine making here. While we enjoy wine a lot, we had never done a tour! The cave cellar we visited it the oldest and largest one in New Zealand! After the tour and tasting we hopped back onto the bikes to ride around the wine country of New Zealand. We biked past people bungee jumping, historic and swinging bridges and farmland. As we rode along the bike tour, the air just smelled amazing and the views were awesome. It was such a fun time! After our ride we went back to the wineries restaurant for lunch. We shared the heirloom tomato salad and a spinach gnocchi and beet plate. I was honestly truly shocked at how good the food was and I  really enjoyed the meal. As we drove out of wine country we stopped at one more winery for a quick tasting. I am truly excited for the wines we bought and brought back home with us to enjoy for our Christmas dinner. 

We wasted no time, once back in town we went to the gondola of Queenstown for a lift up part of the mountain. From there we started our hike up the mountain. Another incredibly steep hike up, up, up. The terrain on this one was much easier and we flew up the first half of the mountain. Once the view of mountains was revealed to us the terrain went back to a rocky scramble and super steep loose rock. We reached the top and I thought it was super cool we could see the top of the tiny mountain we hiked up our first trail in Queenstown. Which at the time felt huge, but not compared to the beast we were standing on. We could see many snow peaks around us in the distance, all of Queenstown and more. It was a wonderful last hike to do for our time in New Zealand. 

Since it was our last night we enjoyed a romantic dinner alone. We started at what is said to be the best Mexican in town for a cocktail and appetizer. Then we headed over to Boardwalk for dinner. It was the perfect spot for a final dinner – quiet, good drinks, romantic, great views and yummy seafood. 

Things I learned about New Zealand from Visiting

  • People in New Zealand (locals = Kiwis) are extremely kind. You will also meet so many people from all over the world. 
  • The hikes are STEEP and you need to arrive early for parking for anything easily found on social media or All Trails. 
  • Breakfast pies are a thing and they are AMAZING. 
  • DO NOT FEED THE KEAS. They are friendly, smart birds. You put them at risk by further conditioning them to beg for human scraps.
  • Drives will be longer because few people seem to drive the speed limit.
  • At night drive carefully as there are many bunnies and hedgehogs on the road. 
  • Be careful ordering an ice coffee as there may be ice cream in it. Unless you like sweet coffees! 
  • You do not need to tip in New Zealand.
  • When you visit, you truly will want to come back. Everyone said this to us and I was like yeah for sure we will love it. But no really, we want to move there and never leave now…
  • Queenstown is similar to Sedona, but better in all ways when it comes to being a tourist town, but do expect it to be a tourist town. The food is amazing. Uber into town or expect to park in paid lots or decks. 
  • New Zealand has a strong connection to their native people, Māori and a lot of signs and info is in english but also Māori.
  • Airbnbs are cheaper in New Zealand than in the states in some situations. They are also beautifully designed and it is likely to have a full window view of the mountains surrounding you. However, most of the homes did not have ac and the windows get hot, baking the home. While you are adventuring for the day close all the blinds!!!! Thank me later 🙂 
  • Driving on the left side of the road for me felt really natural and easy. For Bill it was a little harder. Our entire group noticed we tended to hug the left edge of the road when driving. Do not stress about it, if you are a passenger, just remember the phrase “stay left” for your driver when making turns and such! 
  • You might want to buy a to go coffee cup or a Chunky Loan Cup as a lot of place in New Zealand will not give you a to go cup for coffee outside of the more touristy areas. New Zealand really values no waste. 

Things I wish we had done different while in New Zealand

Our trip was honestly amazing, probably by far the best trip I have ever gone on. So this is more of a list of things I would do in the future…

  • Rent a camper van and stay for at the very least 18 days. For the amount of hiking we would like to do I think a month would be even better. 
  • When visiting Mt Cook, stay at the Mt Cook resort or stay in a camper van in the parking lot for at least a night or two. Otherwise no matter what, you have a 1 hour drive each way. This makes it easier to park and to see sunrise and sunset in a truly stunning place. I think it would be worth it! 
  • Take longer breaks between hikes. I had so many hikes I wanted to do, but wow, I was too sore after one to do another lol. The hikes are steep and there is not any shade on them. They take a lot out of you.
  • Plan 1-2 extra days than you want/expect in each town or area you visit. 
  • Fly in and out at night. 
  • At your first store run  – buy sunscreen and bug spray. Sand flies are often found near water systems and they are tiny little biters that will leave you itching. 
  • Enjoy yourself + prepare for that. The food is good, enjoy dining out, especially in Queenstown. Go see the places! The gas is not cheap….

Top Recommendations from our trip

  • Mueller Hut – stay overnight in the hut for a cozy backpacking experience, you will need to make reservation in advance.
  • Milford Sound – hang out long enough to experience the Keas and take a boat tour
  • Onsen Pools
  • Gibbson Valley Tour – ride the bikes around for the day, plan ahead with your tasting bookings and enjoy lunch. 
  • The Bunker (our friends would also highly recommend Rata and The Nest) – these are all restaurants in Queenstown
  • If you are a Mezcal girlie like me def go have a drink at The Mez.
  • A farm tour – we loved our tour at Deer Park Heights so much. I would also recommend checking out one we found online in Glenorchy called Glenorchy Farm Experience 
  • New Zealand in general. If you have ever considered it, but haven’t gone do it! It is amazing. Truly everywhere you go is beautiful. There is so much adventure for any level of experience to do. Overall 1000/10 experience.