My Ultimate New Zealand Bucket List – South Island

My recent trip to New Zealand was literally the trip of a lifetime. I planned it start to finish based on reading blogs and travel websites to ensure I was getting the best of New Zealand. In the process, I learned a lot about the history, people, and just what New Zealand is known for. Along the way, I found some hidden gems and even some areas to avoid. I’ve always been a planner but this trip took my love for travel and planning to a whole new level. I planned thirteen full days start to finish, which included the flights, hotels, transportation, activities, road stops. I know I sound like I am bragging and it’s because I totally am; a lot of love, frustration, planning and re-planning went into this trip to make sure it was perfect.

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In 13 days, we saw so many beautiful places and did so many incredible things. There were things that I never thought I could do just based on the fact I have limited myself so much on past travels. I came up with the list of things that you must do while in New Zealand, which could be an activity, visiting a place, or just something you can’t miss. When you go to New Zealand, none of these things should disappoint. With New Zealand having so much to offer, I will be dedicating one post to the North Island and one post to the South Island. This post will be about the South Island and everything it has to offer.

Christchurch

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Going to Christchurch was quite an interesting experience because this city endured a lot of damage from the 2011 earthquake, a lot of which you can still see while you are driving and walking around. Due to the damage, there is not much to do except just walk around the city, but it is incredibly fascinating; there is beauty surrounded by destruction. The whole city is a piece of art.

  • Walk the Streets – You will find yourself in awe and shock walking through the city’s streets because not only will you see all of the pain and suffering this city and it’s people has gone through, but you will see how they are trying to pick themselves back up. While walking through the streets, you will see buildings that once were home to large companies and corporations with the windows missing and graffiti covering the buildings, you will see storefronts that have graffiti on the windows and inside you see the remnants of what used to be in there, and you will walk by you will be surrounded by beautiful street art that has covered abandoned buildings. It is quite sad to walk around and see all of this, but at the same time it makes you realize how our earth and the people living on it can endure so much pain and suffering and yet they can still pick themselves back up.
  • Re:START Mall – A small outdoor shopping mall made out of shipping containers. All of the decorations and physical buildings are made out of recycled materials, which makes this especially fascinating. This is a great place to look for souvenirs, but also a great way to support the local economy. This little mall is the only part of the city we found to be lively while they work on rebuilding the rest of the city, so make sure to check it out!

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  • 185 Chairs – This art installation is a beautiful tribute to those that died in the 2011 earthquake. Each white chair represents a person who lost their life, with each chair being unique to each person; there were high chairs and car seats representing the babies and children, rocking chairs representing the mothers, and so on. The visit here is a little solemn but I think it is important to pay respects to those that were involved in such a terrible disaster.

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  • Cardboard Cathedral – Just around the block from 185 Chairs, you will find the Cardboard Cathedral with its vibrant colors and unique architecture. A lot of the cathedral is made of cardboard and was built for those to have a place of worship since the Christchurch Cathedral was destroyed during the earthquake and was too expensive to fix.

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  • New Regent Street – This street is for pedestrian use only and is absolutely adorable! The street is lined with shops and cafés, which are below colorful buildings that look like houses. It is very small and quaint, but it is a great place to walk around for a bit while you get acquainted with the area.

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Lake Tekapo

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I am not even sure where to start with Lake Tekapo as it was hands down my favorite place in New Zealand. It is about a 3-hour drive from Christchurch and a MUST VISIT during lupine season! I knew before we went on this trip that this would probably be my favorite part and I couldn’t have been more right; I can’t even put into words the beauty of this place! Prime lupine season is mid-November to end of December and if you can, plan your visit to New Zealand (especially the South Island) during this time frame.

  • Lakeside at Dusk – We happened to arrive into Lake Tekapo as the sun was setting and the colors of sky mixed with the colors of the flowers, and it was stunning; I fell in love with Lake Tekapo at first sight. We stayed there and took tons of photos and it happened to be the night that my fiancé found his proposal location. This leads me right into my next point…

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  • GET ENGAGED HERE (If you can help it) – Your friends and family will talk about it for months, and you can’t help but brag and want to show everyone a picture, including people you first meet! Make sure you have someone around who can take pictures for this special moment because I promise you want it captured. I have the best sister ever who can keep secrets and take amazing photos!

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  • Take a hike – there are quite a few trails in the area and I could not tell you which one we did, but it was still beautiful. This was not the trail I planned on us doing, but it still turned out to have amazing views!
  • Stay at Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park – If you are lucky, you will get the perfect view of the lake to wake up to and it will make your day start off in an amazing way. If you are renting a campervan, they provide a picnic table for you to use, electricity, and running water. When renting an RV, this is SUPER important. The park itself not only had very clean facilities, but like I said before, the location is very convenient.

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  • Stay up to see the stars – We were so exhausted and did not stay up to see the stars, and I regret it so much. I have seen so many incredible pictures of the stars in Lake Tekapo and months later I am still mad at myself.
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Photo Credit: Concrete Playgound
  • Church of the Good Shepherd – Unfortunately we missed this too, so don’t make the same mistake! We got so wrapped up in the beauty of the lake and its surroundings (and the engagement!) that I completely forgot about the church! This is an icon in the area and you shouldn’t miss it.
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Photo Credit: Dream Weddings New Zealand

Lake Pukaki

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Another picture perfect spot to spend some as little or as much time as you want. It can be a place for you to spend the night or a stop along the way. For us it was just a stop but it was worth every second. Crystal clear blue waters make for unbelievable pictures. Don’t forget to wear sunscreen as although it may not be hot, the sun is still shining and you can get some color in a matter of minutes.

Queenstown

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Queenstown is the definition of perfect; it is not overly crowded and it has so much to do. You can enjoy the shops, restaurants, and cafés downtown or you can book an adrenaline rush. There is a feeling of belonging in Queenstown, no matter where you are from.

  • Be Adventurous – There are endless opportunities to live on the edge in Queenstown; you can bungee jump, swing over a canyon, zipline, skydive, hang glide, paraglide, do the Shotover jet, the list is endless! My fiancé and I booked the Nevis Swing (largest swing in the world) and it was amazing! This is good for someone who isn’t quite ready for the bungee jump but still wants an adrenaline rush. My sister and her friend Jessi, on the other hand, bungee jumped and said it was crazy. No matter what you decide to do, the team at AJ Hackett take really good care of you and make you feel safe.
  • Hangout Downtown – As I touched on a bit already, downtown is full of life and is right on the water. It can make for a fun evening with the family or a romantic evening for you and your significant other. When the sun is shining, there are plenty of spots to soak up the sun and enjoy being in the moment.
  • Check out The Remarkables – This is the iconic mountain range that surrounds Queenstown. It makes for great photographs and allows you to be one with nature while still being in a city.

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  • Stay at Pounamu Apartments – This would be a splurge when it comes to accommodations, but it was worth every penny. It is a full apartment with 2 bedrooms that have king size beds and private bathrooms. It also has a full kitchen, a living room with a fireplace, and floor to ceiling windows with a view of The Remarkables. Shout out to the staff for leaving a bottle of wine, chocolate, and a card congratulating us on our anniversary!

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Milford Sound

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Magical. That is the best word I can use to describe Milford Sound as it looks like you just stepped into a scene of Jurassic Park or Avatar. The fjords shooting straight out of the water creating this perfect view. There are a few ways to get to Milford Sound, but let me tell you the best way to experience Milford Sound:

  • Fly – Through Air Milford you can fly Queenstown to Milford Sound round-trip and get stunning views; you fly through the mountains that are covered with snow, and you fly so close to the mountains that sometimes you wonder if you can touch them. It is totally worth the extra money you pay for it because you save a lot of time so you can explore more of Queenstown while still getting the experience of Milford Sound. Air Milford is owned by a father and son and they do such an incredible job; they are friendly, outgoing, and make the whole experience perfect.

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  • Cruise – if you go to Milford Sound, you have to take one of the cruises. Through Air Milford, they book the cruise for you, reserve inside seating, and give you a complimentary drink and cheese platter on board. Fortunately for us, we had amazing weather, but apparently that is extremely rare so make sure you are prepared for bad weather and high winds. Toward the end of the cruise, the staff will tell you to go outside and go to the front of the boat to see a waterfall, DO IT! Make sure you don’t have any electronics exposed, though (hint, hint).

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Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes

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There is not much to see or do here, but it makes for a quick stop while visiting the South Island. Here you can see some fascinating rocks that look like limestone pancakes stacked on top of one another. You can do the loop in about 20 minutes and it is worth your time.

Abel Tasman National Park

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I have to say I wasn’t super impressed with Abel Tasman, but the weather was also miserable. Before we left on our trip, I saw all these beautiful photos of the water being so crystal clear to the point of it being transparent. I am by no means saying don’t visit because I would have loved to have spent more time here.

  • Kayak – We booked a 3-hour kayak/hiking trip with Kahu Kayak for our time in Abel Tasman. I was banking on sunny and warm weather, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. Unfortunately the water was a bit choppy, but the experience was still a ton of fun thanks to our guides and the other people on the trip; our guides were full of humor and down to earth. Be ready to kayak for 1.5-2 hours and then prepare to walk for about another 2-3-hours back to the kayak base. I wasn’t expecting the hike to be so crazy and the weather to be so awful so we were extremely unprepared. We ended up having one of the guides book us a water taxi back to the main island, so if it is raining that day, remember this because the taxi wasn’t a promise.
  • Eat a burger at The Fat Tui – SO GOOD. The burgers are huge, the prices are great, and the staff members are incredibly friendly. Our guide from the kayak tour actually recommended this place to us, which was great because this place was conveniently located right next to Kahu Kayaks and we were starving by the time we got back to our RV.

New Zealand’s South Island surpassed all my expectations I had. There is still so much to see and do and the day I get to go back to the South Island will be a dream come true. I cannot thank the universe enough for creating such a beautiful country.

Since I have posted about our adventures on both the North & South Islands, who is ready for a North vs South?! Stay tuned for that post.

Ready to plan your adventure to New Zealand and need some help or someone to do all the dirty work for you? Contact me here and I am happy to help you out!

10 Things to Do & See in Iceland

Iceland is the most naturally beautiful place I have ever been. You have volcanoes, black sand beaches, fjords, geysers, and glaciers. You have the opportunity to experience the Northern Lights or Midnight Sun. If you are reading this post, I really hope you have already booked or are at least considering a trip to Iceland soon!

One of the biggest discussion around Iceland is how much time you can spend in Iceland and see what you need to see. I spent about 5 days there and that was enough. With those 5 days, I want to share with you the top 10 things to do and see that I recommend based on personal experience.

1. Visit Seljalandfoss Waterfall

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This was my favorite place in Iceland as it is something you would only think is from a fairy tale. The water falls so perfectly and being able to walk behind it makes this waterfall the best one in my opinion (it is actually one of the best rated waterfalls in Iceland). Not to mention it is right off of route one which makes it super convenient.

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The magic does not stop here! Make sure once you are done walking behind the waterfall that you walk ALL the way to the end before returning to your car. There is a hidden waterfall in a cave which you can access by walking through the cave opening and jumping from rock to rock in a stream. You may get a little wet (especially if you miss a rock like I did) so make sure to wear proper footwear for this visit!

2. Visit Vik & surrounding areas

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Vik is cute little town at the southernmost point in the country. It is great location to stop overnight while still being  a part of civilization. I recommend staying somewhere you can cook or already have food prepared because there isn’t much to choose from. We made the mistake of not having anything for breakfast and the food store was not open until 10am.

Just down the road you can visit Reynisfjara (Black Sand Beach). The beach has so many sights to offer which is hard to believe considering its not that big. First of all, you have the black sand which is really neat by itself.

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You then have the basalt columns which are so cool! (I know I sound like a complete child right now but it really was awesome).

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In addition to the sand and the columns, you also have the rocks jutting out of the water. I sat there for a minimum of 10 minutes watching the waves crash against them while also watching the birds come and go from the rock formations. Just a quiet and peaceful experience.

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Drive just a little bit further and you will find yourself above the black sand beach where you can take pictures from a different angle. The best part about this spot is the crashing waves you get to experience. It was such an adrenaline rush being in the presence of something so powerful.

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3. Snorkel or Dive in Silfra Fissure

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Who can turn down the opportunity to swim in the water that connects two continents? I most certainly could not. Silfra is known to have some of the most pure and clear water in the world due to the type of water that runs into this area of Þingvellir National Park. Let me also mention that this will be some of the coldest water you will ever swim in. Silfra is the rift between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates that started out attached and over time has moved further and further apart. The earth is literally ripping apart. Every year, the plates move 9mm apart, creating a larger gap.

I will say that while snorkeling sounds normal, doing it here is far from it. We used Dive.is as the tour/gear provider and they were so great. You can tell the employees really enjoy their jobs and for such an incredible experience, it cost 17900 ISK per person ($155 USD). You have to get geared up in so much equipment due to the super cold waters. You have a sleeping bag/snowsuit thing that you put on over your thermals (no regular clothes allowed) and then you put on on a dry suit to ensure your body does not get wet. You have special cloves, headgear, boots and goggles too! Even with all of this, your hands, feet, and face become so cold you think you wont have them when you get out of the water.

The cold and the pain are totally worth it as you get to see things like this…

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Since you are physically not able to take great pictures, your guide will give you the option to buy all the pictures they took from your tour for about $30 USD and they e-mail you a Dropbox account. TOTALLY WORTH IT. Just a friendly reminder, make sure you download those pictures ASAP as they are deleted after one month!

Another thing to keep in mind is the tour takes about 3 hours not including transit time.

4. Go on a Glacial Hike on Vatnajökull Glacier

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Vatnajökull Glacier is the largest glacier in Iceland. It take up about 14% of the country and is the biggest in Europe. It costs 10900 ISK per person ($95 USD) per person and lasts about 2.5 hours. Anyone can do this as long as you can learn to pick your feet up so you don’t trip on your crampons.

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Such a great experience being a part of something that is so massive.

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I recommend bringing your own lunch with you as they do not have much to purchase in the store and you will be hungry after the drive. The drive alone makes going on this glacier hike even better. You get to see Southern Iceland which is beautiful in early May. You have green mountains and little lambs while driving along the coast.

5. Drive the Golden Circle

Yes, everybody does it but its because its so incredible! We drove counterclockwise by starting in Þingvellir National Park and ending at Gullfoss Falls.

This is an easy drive from Reykjavik and depending on how much time you want to take, its an easy day trip. You could technically do it in 3.5 hours and that is if you spend a little time here and there. I recommend just making a day trip out of it so you can explore each of the stops as well as take in the beauty of Iceland and the pull-off stops to take pictures.

The drive is one of the prettiest and you literally stop every 2-10 minutes to take a picture. Here are just a few at “picture” stops:

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Þingvellir National Park was our first stop. This park is something you cannot miss if you take a trip to Iceland. It is a great way to really get a feel for what the country has to offer. Crystal clear blue waters, rolling hills, and snow capped mountains. Not to mention if you are a Game of Thrones fan, you may notice this place looks a little familiar.

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Geysir is the second stop on the way in which you need to see Stokkur. The geyser erupts every 10-15 minutes and shoots up about 10-20 meters each time. It is worth watching once or twice as it is the most active geyser in Iceland.

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While you are there, you can also see The Great Geysir which is currently “inactive” and is believed to remain that way until something like an earthquake wakes this massive geysir from its sleep.

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The last and final stop on the Golden Circle is Gulfoss Falls which generates more energy than Niagara Falls in Canada/USA. It’s bursting with rainbows and well…gushing falls. This was probably my favorite stop on the day trip as it is something so simple that is so beautiful.

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6. Spend at least half a day exploring Reykjavik

Reykjavik is this chill, artsy, small city that you can easily explore without public transportation. There are a variety of different places to eat and a few great things to see and do. The best part about Reykjavik is just being there. You don’t have to visit every museum or take every tour there is. It is one of those cities that is what it is.

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For food, I highly recommend you have at least one good Icelandic Hot Dog. I am not sure what is different about the hot dogs there versus the USA but they are not the same.

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Another recommendation is to spend a decent amount of money and go to Apotek. We did the Icelandic Tasting Menu (6 courses) and it was so good. It was also very filling.Not to mention the restaurant has a great staff and has an awesome environment.

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7. Go to the top of Hallgrimskirkja

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Hallgrimskirkja is the landmark for all of Reykjavik as its one of the tallest buildings in the city. It is also the largest church in Iceland. Architecturally this church is incredible and something to see while visiting the incredible city.

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You MUST buy a ticket to head to the top of the tower for some amazing views and incredible pictures. We did this one the first day of our trip to get some sightseeing in while being incredibly tired since none of us slept on the flight.

8. Pet an Icelandic Horse

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So this may or may not something that will make you jump up and down about Iceland but I can tell you that these horses are the friendliest most down to earth creatures. Not to mention the fact they are super majestic. Just be careful, one did not care for my boyfriend and tried to bite him!

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9. Experience Reykjavik at sunset

We did not really get a chance to see Reykjavik at all parts of the day until our last night in Reykjavik. It was absolutely stunning. The color of the sky seemed to be so perfectly placed that it was really special. We visited Harpa (the concert hall) which has one of the most fascinating glass walls ever. They change color at night and are meant to reflect the Northern Lights. It never officially got dark when we were there so that was disappointing but still very cool.

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You also have the Sun Voyager statue there which creates the perfect picture when taken at the right time.

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We found a geocache during our evening walk (9PM to be exact) hidden under a metal box while walking. Keep your eyes open. This is just another example of the hidden treasures Reykjavik offers.

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10. Go to Blue Lagoon on your way home

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After an beautiful, fun filled getaway, the perfect ending was the time spent at Blue Lagoon. It is like being in a giant hot tub without the bubbles with bars that you can swim up to. You also have the option to apply face masks which were really nice.

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As an American, DO NOT get freaked out by having to shower naked as most of the showers have frosted glass doors. Let’s face it, we are stuck in the days of people not accepting those for who and what they are. No one cares what you look like regardless. Just shower off and go have fun at Blue Lagoon.

Also, I recommend upgrading to the Premium Package if you have time to eat at LAVA, the restaurant at Blue Lagoon this package will help you get a reservation. You get a bathrobe and flip flops which is also super nice and just enhanced the experience.

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I hope these tips help you plan your trip to Iceland and more posts will follow this. If you have any questions in the meantime, please leave me a comment!