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The Best of New Zealand: a South Island Active + Leisure travel itinerary

Updated: Nov 9


How does such a remote island of only 58k square miles become one of the best active travel destinations in the world? The largest contributor can be a bit scary if I think about it for too long: the island's position in the world’s largest circle of tectonic plates – the “Pacific Ring of Fire”. It is the most seismically active zone on the planet and whenever those plates move and push up on each other, they trigger earthquakes and volcanos. And over the years, New Zealand has seen its fair share of earthquakes. Did this stop me from planning a two week hybrid travel experience there? Not a chance. Because the same seismic activity that shakes the place up has also created some of the most dramatic and diverse landscapes in the world. New Zealand is also an outdoor recreation and mecca. From hiking, paddling, and cycling to the thrill of bungee jumping or tandem hang gliding, this island country is chock full of options for adventure. And I covered a lot of them in 14 action-packed days, even managing a half day in wine country at the end. I wish I had taken a month. It’s a long flight and can be an expensive one as well. So if you have the vacation time, take it. I could have easily kept exploring for another two weeks. But I did as much as I could in the time that I had, vowing to come back. So have a seat, read the travel itinerary below and hopefully you will be inspired to get busy planning your own New Zealand Hybrid Travel Vacation.​

The Active

There is so much outdoor activity options, that I am not even sure where to begin. There is plenty of water to kayak and boat on, paved roads or paths to cycle on, mountains to climb, scenic tracks to multi-day hike through and even if you simply rent a car, drive, camp or road trip, the landscape will not disappoint.

Disclaimer: There may be some affiliate links on this page, which means when you click I get a small percentage of the purchase at no extra cost to you. Recommendations come from my own personal experience and/or research. However, my philosophy is ‘you get what you give’. So for every booking or purchase made through these links, Paradox will contribute 20% of the profit to one of the charities highlighted on our site. So not only does this facilitate the continued sharing of great travel tips and recommendations, but your purchase will contribute to something bigger than the both of us. Thank you.

The Leisure

Although this trip was mostly focused on recreation and outdoor play, we found some real gems in Queenstown accommodations and fine dining. Check out the romantic charm of Amour Bed & Breakfast or enjoy some upscale indulgence at the Spire Hotel. After a long day of hiking or paddling, gourmet dining or cocktails at Botswana Butchery, Gantley's, Roaring Meg or Rata is a nice touch. But so is a nice glass of vino at the top of the gondola at sunset.

Click here for more luxury accommodations in Queenstown

Click here for more moderate accommodations in Queenstown

How to Connect

If you love the area as much as we do and want to help preserve it, check out ECO:

“ECO is a network of fifty-plus large and small environmental organizations based all around New Zealand, as well as several hundred individual Friends. The core of ECO’s work is promoting and strengthening community environmental action, and working collaboratively towards better government policies and management decisions. ECO also works on global issues such as climate change, Antarctica, and oceans.” Learn more about ECO here.

If you'd like some help planning part of your trip, get some local expert assistance from Wanaka Bike Guides or other local guides who support responsible tourism, listed here.

Plan Ahead Items

In high season, hotels can book up quickly, especially in smaller towns. So book ahead as possible. New Zealand is also famous for its hiking circuits of ‘tracks’ which can be covered over several days of hiking and connected by overnight huts en route. However, you do need to get passes for these trails, as well as hut reservations beforehand, if you want to ensure a bed on the dates that you are there. You can do this easily online here by first picking the area and the track you want to hike and they will guide you from there. Then pick up your passes at the local ranger station nearest to the track you are planning to hike. Some tracks are circular, so you start and end at the same place and can leave your car. But others are through-hikes and you will need to arrange parking and bus drop-off and pickup for the dates you desire, especially high season. We used Tracknet and felt they did a great job.

As for kayaking in popular fiords like Milford Sound, you may want to book those ahead as well, if you are on a tight schedule. But if you have some flexibility, you can wait and do it once you are there. See below in the itinerary for my recommendations at Milford.

Trip Rating L1-2 (this is definitely a vacation worth renting a car to explore, so you will need to be comfortable driving on the left side of the road. See full description of ParadoxTravel trip ratings here

Month of travel December (Summer in New Zealand)

Length of trip 14 days if you fly from the US west coast. You will cross the international date line, which means that you lose/skip a date on the way there and make it up on the way back.

The Details

Days 1 & 2 - getting there

Flight - 10pm LAX > Auckland 13 hours, but arrive on 3rd day (by date)

**NOTE - you cross the international date line, so you will lose a day flying out from the west coast and gain it back coming home.

Day 3 - Queenstown

Flight - Arrive Auckland early morning

Flight - Auckland > Queenstown 2 hour flight

Pickup car - we used a local NZ rental car company as prices for a 4WD were cheaper than US based agencies.

New Zealand Rent a Car & Network Car Rentals – Frankton Depot location

Activity suggestions - rest, gondola up for sunset cocktails, or walk along the river path

Accommodation suggestion - The Rees hotel

Accommodation options - Crowne Plaza, The Spire, Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel, Whistler Holiday Apartments

Click here for more hotel options in Queenstown

Day 4 - Queenstown

Activity Suggestion - AM - Hike Queenstown Hill PM: Gondola up and ride the luge, zip line or rent a mountain bike here.

Dinner suggestion - People watch on the outdoor patio at Pier 19

Accommodation suggestion - The Rees hotel

Day 5 - Glenorchy and Routeburn Track hike

Day Trip

Drive - Queenstown to Glenorchy via the spectacular drive along Lake Wakatipu – the most scenic drive in New Zealand!

Activity Suggestion - Hike out and back on the Routeburn track – > incredible views. You decide length and distance of your hike based on fitness level, interest and time

Dinner Suggestion - grab a quick bite at Fergburger – Do not leave Queenstown without trying this place at least once on your trip -it's a classic!

Accommodation suggestion - The Rees Hotel

Day 6 - Mount Cook

Overnight trip

Drive - 3.5 hours to Mount Cook

Activity Suggestions - Hike Tasman Glacier View trail (~1 hour RT) or Red Tarns (2 hours, steep like stair climb, views challenging) or Key Point Track (easier but with great views of Mount Cook on a clear day)

Get more information on these tracks here.

Accommodation suggestions - Anoraki Court Hotel or Hermitage Hotel

Day 7 - Queenstown Hiking

NOTE - Mount Cook area has a good chance of being cloudy or rainy while you are there, so having a backup plan is a good idea. This happened to us, so our option was to head back to sunny Queenstown early the next day and hike the Ben Lomond trail at the top of the gondola instead – incredible hike and views!

Drive - 3.5 hrs back to Queenstown

Activity suggestion - Hike: a) Mt Cook area (above) if weather is good or b) back in Queenstown at top of gondola, Ben Lomond trail, followed by a beer at the sky bar.

Dinner suggestion - Botwana Butchery, Queenstown (great cocktails and reindeer tar tar)

Accommodation suggestion - Amour Bed & Breakfast, Queenstown

Day 8 - Te Anau

Drive - 2.5 hours to Te Anau

Activity suggestions - Enjoy the drive, explore Te Anau

Dinner suggestion - La Toscana (tasty pizza)

Accommodation suggestion - Radford’s on the Lake

Day 9 - Te Anau

Activity suggestion - Prep/repack for Kepler track multi-day hike, get trail passes and check weather conditions at ranger station, confirm kayak reservation for day 10 if you have them.

Dinner suggestion - The Red Cliff Cafe

Accommodation suggestion - Radford’s on the Lake

Click here for more accommodation options in Te Anau

Day 10 - Milford Sound Kayak

Activity suggestion - Milford Sound kayaking day trip

Drive - 90 min Te Anau to Milford Sound

Kayak tour - Rosco’s Milford Kayak – Sunriser classic 3.5 hour paddle

Dinner suggestion - The Fat Duck

Accommodation suggestion - Radford’s on the Lake

Day 11 - Kepler Track Hike

Activity suggestion - Start 3-day Kepler Track hike

Breakfast/coffee suggestion - the Sandfly (great savory muffins!)

Drive / Park car - Tracknet Parking lot in Te Anau > bus to Kepler trail head

Hike - Kepler Track

Dinner suggestion - there are gas stoves available and fresh water but you will need to bring your own food.

Accommodations - Luxmore Hut (book ahead here) Beds are bunk style

Day 12 - Kepler Track Hike

Activity - Hike Kepler Track

Accommodations - Iris Burn hut (book ahead here)

Day 13 - Kepler Track Hike

Activity - Hike Kepler track to Rainbow Swing Bridge and shuttle pickup

**NOTE – the Kepler track can be done as a loop, but the last section between Rainbow Bridge and the trailhead where you started is fairly flat and takes several hours longer. We opted to end the hike and get picked up at Rainbow Bridge parking lot by Tracknet

**NOTE 2 – In hind sight, this track from trailhead to the Rainbow Bridge pickup can be done in two days if you are in good shape. The trailhead to Luxmore hut is steep, but it took us only about four hours in total. The hike to the next hut took less time but it was rainy and we were glad for shelter. But if the weather is good and you don’t mind two long days, you could hike through to Iris Burn hut on the first hiking day (with a rest stop at Luxmore) and then continue around and down to the Rainbow Bridge parking lot on Day Two.

Dinner suggestion - The Ranch Bar & Grill (great pub food)

Accommodation suggestion - Lake Front Lodge, Te Anau

Day 14 - Queenstown Bike ride

Drive - Early AM Te Anau to Queenstown (2.5 hours)

Activity Suggestion - Midday - rent bikes and ride around the lake! Great bike path, flat, easy, scenic 1-2 hour ride. You can rent bikes in many places by the hour in downtown Queenstown.

Optional activity suggestions - Go to The Winery in downtown Queenstown for happy hour or check out the terrific Ivan Clark Gallery

Dinner suggestions

Fine dining – Rata, Roaring Meg’s or Gantley’s

Casual dining: Halo Forbidden Bites (tapas), Flame Grill (terrific ribs & BBQ)

Accommodation suggestions - Novotel (Note - they can have hidden costs/charge for every little thing)

Additional upscale hotel options - Crowne Plaza, The Spire, Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel, Whistler Holiday apartments

Click here for more hotel options in Queenstown

Day 15 - Wine Tasting

Wine Tasting Day - (if you book a late return flight like we did – 6pm)

Lakeside breakfast suggestionThe Bathhouse

Winery suggestions - Gibbston Valley, Peregrine, Chard Farms

Drop off rental car

Flight - 6pm Queenstown > Auckland > LAX

**NOTE – this is where you gain a day. You will leave New Zealand on one day/evening, travel 15-20 hours, but arrive back in the USA on the same date as the date you left New Zealand due to crossing back over the international date line. So you gain back the day you lost on the way there.

Have fun!

GALLERY

http://www.eco.org.nz/what-we-do.html

#NewZealand #bestofnewzealand #Keplertrack #Routeburntrack #Activevacations

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